German chancellor Merkel reacts as she arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin
By Paul Carrel and Andreas Rinke
BERLIN (Reuters) - A total of 60 lawmakers in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's 311-member conservative bloc voted against or abstained in a test ballot on Tuesday over a third bailout plan for Greece before the vote in parliament, participants told Reuters.
In what was nevertheless an important endorsement for Merkel, the test ballot showed there may be far fewer rebels in Wednesday's vote from her bloc over the 86 billion-euro ($95 billion) package than feared. Bild newspaper had reported that up to 120 of her deputies would vote against it or abstain.
The test ballot - a non-binding vote - showed 56 'no' votes and 4 abstentions on Tuesday. That was fewer than the 65 lawmakers from her conservative camp who last month broke ranks and refused to back negotiations on the bailout.
Germany is Greece's largest creditor. The parliament's approval, required by law, is vital because, with skeptical lawmakers reflecting public reservations about Greek rescue efforts, it sends an important signal across Europe.
Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, despite earlier misgivings, had urged their fellow Christian Democrats (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) members of parliament to vote 'yes' on the measure.
"It was the right thing to do to take a tough line with Athens," Merkel told the deputies, according to conservatives who took part in the closed-door meeting.
Schaeuble said he backed the third bailout "with complete conviction," sources said. He also told them he was sure that the International Monetary Fund, whose imprimatur many lawmakers see as guaranteeing rigorous implementation of budgetary and reform targets, would take part.
Klaus-Peter Willsch, a key dissident, said: "We were promised the same thing so often but it was always broken."
Support from other parties including the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel's junior coalition partner, and the opposition Greens means approval is not in doubt. But a rebellion by a large number of her allies would be damaging for Merkel.
The lawmakers had broke off their holidays on Tuesday to debate Greece's third bailout plan before approving it.
Schaeuble, who last month told parliament that talks on the third bailout were a "last attempt" to solve the Greece crisis, threw his weight behind the package before Wednesday's vote and said Athens was ready to reform.
Many senior figures in the ruling coalition agreed. But a significant minority of Merkel's conservatives have openly opposed the plan and a growing rebellion would embarrass her.
The debate has been given added spice this time after Volker Kauder, head of the conservatives' bloc in parliament, incensed fellow lawmakers earlier this month with threats of retaliation if they rebelled and voted against a bailout.
Schaeuble, who argued last month that Greece should consider a "timeout" from the euro zone, sought to shore up support for the bailout ahead of Wednesday's vote, citing a dramatic change in the Greek government's readiness to reform.
(Editing by Larry King)