BERLIN German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a row in her centre-right coalition over plans for payments to parents who keep their pre-school children at home, after a group of influential lawmakers said the money should be spent instead on daycare centres.
The Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU), a coalition party traditionally close to the Roman Catholic church, is insisting that parents of stay-at-home toddlers be paid 150 euros a month.
But a growing number of deputies from Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), which operates in the rest of Germany, are refusing to support the plan championed by their sister party.
Merkel needs a strong showing from the CSU in Bavarian and federal elections next year if the conservative parties are to hold on to power, following a dive in support for her junior coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).
The CSU is hoping the childcare payments will prove popular with conservative voters in its southern home state, even though the plan will cost 400 million euros in 2013 and up to 1.2 billion euros a year from 2014.
But Reuters has obtained a letter to CDU leaders signed by 23 CDU deputies saying they will not back the measure. "We are letting you know now that we will reject the proposal to introduce this childcare payment system...," the deputies wrote.
"There are a very many deputies who do not want this," Rita Pawelski, a member of the CDU in parliament and leader of an influential women's group of lawmakers, told Reuters.
Opponents, who also include FDP deputies, argue the payments will partly favour better-off families where a parent can afford to stay at home to look after the children rather than working.
They also say it offers the wrong incentive, especially for immigrants, to keep their children at home instead of sending them to daycare centres to help improve their language skills and get them ready for school.
Merkel is already struggling with a group of rebels in her coalition opposed to euro zone rescue efforts who have voted against her. She survived that with help from the opposition but the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens also oppose the childcare payments and will not back her this time.
Hermann Groehe, general secretary of the CDU and Merkel's right-hand man in the party, said coalition leaders had endorsed the measure and it would definitely be introduced.
"The measure was also agreed at a CDU party congress and we're sticking to it," Groehe said.
Gerda Hasselfeldt, parliamentary leader for the CSU, said her party would not back down. "We've already agreed to this and there won't be any changes," Hasselfeldt said.
The CSU, which has dominated Bavarian politics since World War Two, now runs the wealthy state in coalition with the FDP. However, opinion polls show that the Social Democrats and Greens could mount a serious challenge next year.
Merkel's CDU has already lost control of another traditional southern stronghold, Baden-Wuerttemberg, following a collapse in support for its FDP coalition partners. With the FDP also struggling at the federal level, Merkel needs a strong conservative showing across Germany next year to hold on to power.
(additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; editing by David Stamp)