By Massimiliano Di Giorgio and Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's justice minister survived a no-confidence vote in the lower house of parliament on Wednesday, shoring up the fragile coalition government ahead of looming votes on next year's budget and to strip Silvio Berlusconi of his Senate seat.
Prime Minister Enrico Letta's Democratic Party (PD) and the other groups supporting the government rejected a no-confidence motion by the opposition 5-Star Movement against Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri by 405 to 154.
The outcome of the vote was expected after a PD meeting late on Tuesday where Letta told lawmakers, many of whom had called for Cancellieri to go, that his government's survival was on the line after he had publicly backed the minister.
Voting her out would be tantamount to voting down his government, Letta told the party, according to people present at the meeting.
For the second time this month, Cancellieri defended herself in parliament against accusations that she used her influence to get the daughter of a disgraced insurance magnate out of prison and put under house arrest.
It would be "arbitrary and baseless to link the concession of house arrest to external pressures of any kind", she said, while apologizing for not maintaining a "necessary detachment" in telephone calls to members of the family.
Letta will face further tests next week with a key vote in the Senate on the budget and the vote to expel former Prime Minister Berlusconi from parliament following an August conviction for tax fraud.
The 2014 budget law aims to reduce the fiscal deficit while promising timid cuts to labor costs and other taxes.
Both issues had threatened the government's survival until Berlusconi's centre-right party split on Friday, with one faction saying it would back Letta.
The 70-year-old Cancellieri, a former senior police official, has been under fire since reports emerged at the end of last month that she had called prison officials about the daughter of jailed businessman Salvatore Ligresti.
The Ligresti family, once one of Italy's most powerful business clans, has been at the centre of a scandal involving accusations of false accounting and market manipulation around the insurance group Fondiaria-SAI.
La Repubblica printed a transcript of a tapped phone call between Cancellieri and Ligresti's partner on the day he was arrested along with his two daughters and ex-company managers.
"It's not right," Cancellieri said of the arrests, according to a transcript of the July 17 call seen by Reuters. "You can count on me."
On Wednesday, Cancellieri said that, after speaking to the family, she alerted prison police to the health problems of Ligresti's daughter Giulia, but that it was routine and had no bearing on her release, something a court has confirmed.
"I exclusively expressed my human closeness for the suffering that she was experiencing in that moment," Cancellieri said, explaining that she had been friends of the Ligrestis for many years.
Giulia Ligresti was granted house arrest after a medical doctor said her continued imprisonment could be a "danger" to her health, and after she accepted a plea bargain, the Turin chief prosecutor said.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)