OTTAWA -- The government is taking a new tack that could end the politically toxic debate over three disgraced Conservative senators -- just in time for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's crucial speech to party faithful Friday.
The procedural manoeuvre may also have the added political benefit of papering over the rift that's erupted in Conservative ranks over the proposed suspensions of the trio, making it tougher for Tory senators to vote against the government.
It was unveiled Wednesday, moments after Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella ruled out of order the government's attempt to limit debate on three separate motions to suspend without pay, Sens. Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau.
The motions had been introduced two weeks ago by government Senate leader Claude Carignan as non-government business. Debate has been punctuated by two explosive interventions from Duffy, who accused the Prime Minister's Office of orchestrating a secret deal to reimburse his allegedly invalid expense claims and coaching him to lie about it.
Kinsella ruled Wednesday that closure can only be imposed on debate over government business.
Carignan immediately served notice he'll replace the three non-government motions with a single government motion to suspend the trio. The new motion softens the proposed sanctions somewhat: The three would still be stripped of their paycheques, Senate resources and privileges but would be allowed to retain their Senate life insurance, prescription drug and dental benefits.
Carignan's office would not comment on its anticipated timetable for the new motion. Carignan said a vote could come as early as today while some Conservative senators said they don't expect a vote before next week.
But Liberal senators had little doubt the PMO is pulling the strings to ensure the long, damaging debate is over by the time Harper is to give the keynote speech Friday evening at his party's convention. As government business, Carignan could introduce a closure motion today after brief debate on the new motion, Liberal Senate officials said. The closure motion would require six hours of debate on Friday, after which a vote could be called that afternoon.
The problem with Carignan's original approach arose when the debate didn't proceed fast enough to suit Harper's political agenda, asserted Liberal Sen. David Smith. "Everybody wasn't just saying, 'Hail Mary,' and moving with holy haste so Harper could nail the lid on three motions with great big spikes before Calgary."
Carignan said the vote will be a "totally free vote" for Tory senators. But Sen. Hugh Segal, who has led the dissident Tory charge against the suspensions, said the fact they are now a matter of government business will make it harder for him to vote his conscience: "I have to assess what I'm going to do... As a general principle, I've never voted against a government motion."
While he lauded the government's willingness to let the three senators keep some benefits as a "touch of humanity," Segal said it doesn't change his belief the proposed suspensions amount to sentencing the trio before they're charged, given a fair trial or convicted of any wrongdoing.
Manitoba Sen. Don Plett, a former Tory party president who has also spoken out against the suspensions, marched past reporters. "Well, I've had happier weeks," he said through gritted teeth.
Later, Plett said his views on the proposed suspensions have changed "somewhat" now that they are part of a government motion.
-- The Canadian Press