Weary MPs continued to rise over and over again in the House of Commons Thursday, working slowly and methodically through an exhaustive list of amendments to the Harper government's budget implementation legislation.
After a series of delays, voting began at about 1 a.m. ET. Twelve hours later, just after midday on Thursday, the process was roughly half over, with the Conservative majority winning every vote.
A proposal from Opposition House Leader Nathan Cullen to break for question period in the afternoon was rejected by Conservatives.
MPs are voting on 871 amendments that have been bundled into about 159 groups to speed the voting. Voting is expected to continue through Thursday evening and could end very early on Friday morning if the current pace of about six votes per hour continues.
Throughout Thursday morning, the Commons voted down amendments that would have removed the parts of the bill changing environmental regulations, one of the most contentious aspects of the omnibus legislation. The NDP caucus – particularly its back rows – appeared to be making a point of rising slowly to vote, one by exhausted one.
Opposition House Leader Nathan Cullen told reporters their slow pace was deliberate for the environmental clauses in particular, criticizing Conservative backbenchers for not having the courage of their convictions to break ranks.
"You steel your resolve a bit to know that people appreciate when the country is being bullied, when our Parliament is being bullied, there's someone who's going to push back, and that's essentially what's been happening the last several hours," Cullen said.
"If we had simply allowed the government to pass this bill without any inconvenience at all, the lesson they would have taken away, and Canadians would have taken away, is that Parliament is less important than it really is," the NDP house leader added.
The Conservative caucus has been open about its strategy of dividing into small teams according to their seat placement, with "columns" of MPs exiting the chamber to eat, shower, nap or take short walks while a critical mass of government MPs remain to ensure each amendment fails.
Cullen suggested Government Whip Gordon O'Connor, a retired general, was keeping his troops on a short leash. He thinks Tories sometimes don't vote when a quick head count suggests they've got sufficient numbers to win easily, speeding up the count.
When there's a "shift change" of these break-taking MPs, confusion has occasionally ensued over who's present to vote. MPs have to be in their seats when the "question is put" (the amendment is read from the Speaker's chair), and latecomers' votes are not supposed to be counted.
Liberal MP Marc Garneau told reporters Thursday morning that even though the opposition had lost all the votes so far, it was accomplishing its goal — even if the votes so far occurred while most Canadians slept.
"I'm getting the sense that Canadians realize that the government has abused its power. It did not need to do this. It is making profound changes in many areas to this country, and, yes, it has a majority, but it didn't need to bundle them all into one law and just sort of ram it through," Garneau said in the foyer of the House of Commons.
Asked whether the overnight session was like being trapped in a space capsule, the former astronaut replied it was actually an "open and breezy" social environment inside the House chamber.
Cullen also revealed some lighter moments, including Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's gift of a sash and tiara to NDP Deputy Leader Libby Davies, "which was nice," he said.
"But then you step away from those moments and you realize what you just voted on and what the government just rammed through," Cullen said. "Those moments sober you up real quick."
A brief controversy erupted when Prime Minister Stephen Harper re-entered the Commons after a break just before 8:30 a.m. ET and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May suggested he didn't arrive in time to have his vote counted. Harper insisted he had, supported by an intervention from Government Whip Gordon O'Connor, who is seated immediately behind Harper. The Speaker took him at his word, in accordance with Commons rules.
Coffee, closed eyes and vote-candy
Observers overnight noticed MPs napping, or at least "resting their eyes" in their seats as others rose to vote. MPs are allowed only water in the Commons, but some MPs rose to complain about one who brought in coffee, which is against the rules.
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae and Quebec Liberal MP Justin Trudeau confessed on Twitter that they'd snuck in candy.
Early Thursday afternoon reports from MPs on Twitter suggest that seven NDP MPs have not missed a single vote. Three Liberal MPs are also said not to have slept.
In another brief burst of excitement, one amendment was defeated on a voice vote mid-Thursday morning, sparing MPs that particular round of rising in their places. Opposition MPs farther back in the chamber claimed not to have heard when it was their turn to yell in favour of a recorded standing vote, in a ritual repeated before every vote.
If the opposition does win one, it may be only a minor inconvenience for the government, which could circle back and reinstate the original clause or clauses in future legislation.
Any victory would have symbolic value and surely energize the battle-weary opposition. But the exact consequences would depend on which vote the government lost, and whether the government chooses to see that defeat as a matter of confidence.
The final Commons vote on the budget bill as a whole is expected after its final stage of debate, early next week.
Cullen described its future passage through the Conservative-dominated Senate as similar to a "hot knife through butter."
Toll on Commons clerks
The extended voting is taking its toll on Commons staff, who must be present through to the end, working overtime through rotating shifts.
One clerk was heard briefly on an inadvertently open microphone early Thursday morning saying she was going home because she needed to sleep.
While this voting marathon is testing current MPs, it is not unprecedented. In 1999, the House of Commons endured a record 43 hours of voting on 471 Reform Party amendments to the then-Liberal government's legislation to implement the Nisga'a treaty.
Follow the votes in our live blog below with Kady O'Malley and other members of the CBC Politics team. Read what MPs are tweeting from the Commons here.
Mobile users, follow the live blog here.
Some highlights so far
- The expected start time for the marathon voting session was delayed nearly eight hours Wednesday, after the Liberals forced a series of votes on other parliamentary matters.
- Sorting out the 871 motions into 159 groupings and reading them into the record along with a series of theatrical but otherwise meaningless voice votes chewed up four hours Wednesday night before the recorded votes even commenced.
- The first vote, at 12:59 a.m., took just over seven minutes to complete, with each MP rising and sitting again at their seat. The Conservatives prevailed 150-133.
- Thursday morning, a quick burst of song broke through the steady hum of background chatter as MPs serenaded New Democrat MP Hong Mai with "Happy Birthday." The Quebec MP turns 39 Thursday — at least in the real world off Parliament Hill. Inside the Commons, the calendar continues to read June 13 as Wednesday won't officially end for MPs until the last vote is counted and the House adjourned.
- At the current pace, voting is expected to wrap up in the wee hours of Friday morning. By the time that happens, clerks in the House of Commons will have recited almost 50,000 names in a repetitive roll call.
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