Harper fights off allegations as Tories move to amend suspension motions and shut down debate
Video: Mulcair, Trudeau press Harper over involvement in senate expense scandal
OTTAWA — Conservative leadership in the Senate made its move Tuesday to shut down debate on the motions to suspend Senators Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau, as the prime minister was forced to fight off new explosive allegations in the spending scandal.
Inside the House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was grilled for more than a half hour about the bombshells Duffy dropped yesterday—the $13,560 cheque the Conservative party cut to cover Duffy’s legal fees, as well as the beleaguered senator’s claims that the Prime Minister’s Office dictated every word and every step he took as the spending scandal grew.
Harper assured the Commons there was nothing nefarious about Duffy’s revelation that the party covered the senator’s legal fees.
“The party regularly reimburses members of its caucus for valid legal expenses—as do other parties,” the prime minister said during question period Tuesday, turning the attack on Duffy.
READ MORE: Duffy claims Tories paid his legal fees
“The fact that (Duffy) shows absolutely no regret for his actions, and the fact that he has told untruths about his actions means he should be removed from the public payroll,” Harper said.
Yet hours later in the Senate, as the clock approached 11 p.m., Conservatives there tried to introduce amendments to the motions to suspend Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau without pay, benefits or Senate resources.
VIDEO: Conservative heavy-hitters disagreeing with PM over senate suspensions (Oct 27)
The amendments did not make it to the floor because one independent senator denied the unanimous consent required to do so.
Government leader in the Senate Claude Carignan, who earlier insisted his proposed penalties were appropriate, confirmed the amendments would allow the three senators to continue collecting life insurance and medical benefits, while keeping them away from a salary and Senate resources.
He said they took the decision recognizing the difficulty the three senators would face getting private insurance since the proposed suspension, as it’s currently written, will only last until the end of this parliamentary session, scheduled to end in 2015.
Although Wallin was in the chamber throughout the day and night, she did not offer comment on the amendments, saying she hadn’t seen them yet.
Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, meanwhile, told reporters he felt the proposed amendments demonstrated some human decency, but did nothing to address the question of due process—a concern raised among many in the upper chamber.
Earlier in the day, the Conservatives in the Senate made a move the Liberals called “procedural trickery.”
Conservative deputy leader in the Senate Yonah Martin moved to change the category under which the motions against Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau fall—from “Senate business” to “government business”—giving the government a bigger box of procedural tools with which to work, including the ability to order debate shut down.
The move caused the debate in the upper chamber to shift from the issues at hand—whether the actions of the three senators at the heart of the spending scandal warrant suspension without pay—to a decidedly more procedural one.
As soon as Martin made her move, Liberal deputy leader in the Senate Joan Fraser rose to argue the move was out of order, something the speaker in the Senate will have to rule on.
“I would suggest the government is trying to do indirectly what it can’t do directly,” – Joan Fraser
“I would suggest the government is trying to do indirectly what it can’t do directly,” Fraser told her colleagues.
What they’re trying to do, she said, is impose a deadline on debate.
“It is improper and it is out of order,” Fraser said.
Other senators who rose to argue against the Conservative move said the chamber is in the midst of a historical debate, on the cusp of potentially setting a dangerous precedent, and questioned the need to rush debate.
But Martin insisted the chamber had to shut down debate in order to keep the issue moving forward rather than in circles.
Carignan, the Conservative leader in the Senate and the man behind the motions to suspend Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau without pay, benefits or Senate resources agreed with his deputy leader.
"We've had exemplary debates here ... I think we've heard all points of view," he said, suggesting it’s time the chamber move on to other matters after focusing almost solely on his motions for a week and a half.
He then blamed the Liberals for dragging out the debate—an accusation Liberal leader in the Senate James Cowan vehemently denied.
Video: Liberal leader in the Senate James Cowan questions Conservative motives
“They’re the ones who are wasting time, they’re the ones who brought in this motion,” Cowan said.
“We’re not trying to filibuster or drag this out, but these are very, very important issues we’re dealing with … Now they want to close debate because the prime minister’s coverup story is beginning to unravel.”
The Speaker in the Senate will have to decide whether he agrees with the Liberal’s argument that Martin’s motion is out of order before senators can vote whether to take the step toward shutting down debate.
If they do, votes on the suspension motions will likely fall just as Conservatives gather in Calgary for their convention, beginning later this week.
VIDEO: Mike Duffy’s new senate scandal details (Oct 28)
Heading toward the convention, Harper changed his tune yesterday on what happened after Wright wrote the now-infamous $90,000 cheque to cover Duffy’s expenses, telling a Halifax radio show Wright was “dismissed” over the matter.
The statement runs contrary to what he has insisted for months, that Wright resigned over the affair.
VIDEO: How is the Senate scandal hitting Harper (Oct 27)
Harper has maintained he had no knowledge of Wright’s payment until it became public through the media, even as the list of Conservative insiders who knew continues to grow.
The lengthy debate on the motions, which just wrapped its sixth day, has exposed some division among the Conservatives, with an increasing number of senators questioning the process and severity of the proposed sanctions.
Senators on both sides of the chamber have expressed concerns over whether Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau are getting the due process they deserve, since none has been convicted of a crime.
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