By John O'Donnell
FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Germany's leading Social Democrats on Sunday attacked the conservative finance minister for being too thrifty in dealing with the migrant crisis, as the rift widened in the governing coalition over how to cope with an influx of refugees.
The bitter criticism came after finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble labeled Social Democrat proposals for wider social spending on housing and public services to complement the integration of migrants as "pitiful".
Stephan Weil, the Social Democrat premier of the state of Lower Saxony, hit back on Sunday, calling for a bigger social services budget in order not to alienate ordinary Germans as the country accommodates over one million migrants.
"The finance minister obviously just doesn't get it," Weil told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
Pointing to the high cost of integrating migrants, Weil said: "We cannot create the impression that this is happening at the expense of the weaker members of our society."
He added that spending on schools and childcare would strengthen the "solidarity of our society".
Heiko Maas, Justice Minister and a Social Democrat, was similarly critical and made a renewed call for more spending. "What's more important? The people in the country or balancing the budget?"
Christine Lambrecht, a prominent Social Democrat lawmaker, also disparaged Schaeuble. "After months of big talk and doing nothing, he is worried that he will have to open his wallet," she said.
Schaeuble, a long-standing proponent of prudence, wants to prevent Germany spending more than its earns and is unlikely to be easily moved.
If spending were to spiral, it could further weaken German Chancellor Angela Merkel's fading support.
Merkel has seen her ratings plummet due to her handling of migrants. She is facing the biggest test of her decade in office as she struggles to secure a Europe-wide plan for dealing with the migrants.
Politicians from the German state of Bavaria's Christian Social Union, the sister party to Merkel's CDU, have also been critical of her stance but for different reasons. They want the introduction of a limit to the number of migrants, similar to that imposed in Austria.
Austria, the last stop on the way to Germany for hundreds of thousands of migrants, recently imposed restrictions on its borders, setting off a domino effect in Europe in limiting the flow of people, and leaving hundreds stranded in Greece.
Merkel has warned about the consequences for Europe of border closures. But a poor showing by the Christian Democrats in state elections in March would pressure her to reverse course.
Her conservatives are nervous as they lose ground to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, whose hardline stance on refugees could bring it big gains in all three German states.
Germany attracted 1.1 million asylum seekers last year, leading to calls from across the political spectrum for a change in its handling of refugees coming to Europe to escape war and poverty in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
(Reporting By John O'Donnell; Editing by Clelia Oziel)