By Steve Scherer and Francesca Piscioneri
ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi easily won a confidence vote on Wednesday over his plans to ease rules for companies that hire temporary workers, part of a broader plan to overhaul labor regulations.
The lower-house of parliament voted 344 to 184 to back Renzi, the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence who took power in February from party rival Enrico Letta.
The confidence vote allows the government to accelerate passage of a decree that will allow businesses to renew temporary contracts for up to 36 months without citing their motives. Currently, companies have to justify each extension beyond 12 months.
The decree must be approved by the Senate by May 19 to become a permanent law.
The measure is a minor piece of a broader revision to labor rules - called the Jobs Act - that Renzi is putting together as unemployment soars to nearly 13 percent, its highest since the 1970s, after more than two years of recession.
But the legislation ran into trouble after the left-wing of Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) made minor adjustments that rankled a centrist coalition partner, the New Centre Right (NCD) party that split with Silvio Berlusconi's bloc last year.
The NCD threatened to prolong debate and possibly vote against the measure on the floor of the lower house if the changes were not overturned, prompting Renzi to call a confidence vote to close ranks.
Confidence votes are often used in Italy as a way of truncating debate and hastening the passage of legislation. If the government loses such a vote it is obliged to resign.
The media-savvy and popular Renzi is pushing a series of reforms, including tax cuts for 10 million low earners, ahead of elections for the European Parliament on May 25.
In an interview broadcast on state television on Tuesday, Renzi said the divisions within his coalition were "due to the election campaign" and urged his coalition partners to approve the decree on hiring temporary workers because "it's not acceptable to shrug off the drama of unemployment."
Polls show the PD is currently Italy's leading party with more than 30 percent of voter support, while the NCD, which has never been tested in an election, is hovering around the 4 percent cutoff needed to enter the European Parliament.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Francesca Piscioneri; Editing by Susan Fenton)