OTTAWA - The Conservative drive to suspend three of its black-sheep senators without pay is sputtering amid an apparent difference of opinion between the prime minister and his leader in the Senate as Tories in the upper chamber seek to end debate on the sanctions.
Sen. Claude Carignan has suggested he's open to amending the measures against Sens. Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin, though not Mike Duffy, following explosive allegations that he offered a backroom deal to Brazeau even as the prime minister publicly declared zero tolerance for the senators' purported misdeeds.
Carignan is slated to consult with the Conservative caucus in a closed-door meeting on Monday morning about whether to amend the suspension proposals. Some Conservative senators, including Hugh Segal and Don Plett, the former president of the party, have complained that the move to suspend the senators ignores due process and the rule of law, a point Wallin also made in her remarks to the Senate last week.
It's all evidence of disarray among Conservatives that could create opportunities for those looking to defeat the suspension motions in the days to come.
Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Harper, denied Sunday that Carignan, the government's Senate leader, was acting on behalf of the prime minister.
"These senators have already been found by auditors to have claimed inappropriate expenses," MacDonald said in an email.
"We don't direct the activities of the Senate and cannot comment on the discussions they have had or may be having. What I can say is that we remain firm on this important point: Senators who have already been found to have claimed inappropriate expenses should not be collecting a public paycheque."
On Parliament Hill on Friday, Brazeau said Carignan offered him a deal just hours earlier to receive lighter sanctions from the Senate in exchange for a public apology. Brazeau said Carignan pulled him aside outside the Senate chamber to make the offer.
"The deal was, that if I stood in this chamber, apologized to Canadians and took responsibility for my actions, that my punishment would be lesser than what is being proposed," Brazeau told the Senate.
Carignan responded that his offer was one made out of "friendship," adding he'd always been open to "friendly amendments."
"It's like every motion, it could be amended," Carignan later told reporters.
"When we realize that if somebody apologized to Canadians … it's something that we could take in account and perhaps change the motion. Or he could also move an amendment to say, look, I apologize and I want to reduce the sanction. He could do that. And it's exactly what I said to him."
Senate Conservatives are aiming to end debate Monday on the controversial proposal to suspend the three senators. A motion, to be tabled three days before the Conservative party convention kicks off in Calgary, would impose a time allocation for the debate.
James Cowan, Liberal Senate leader, has said he's puzzled why his Conservative colleagues are trying to rush the process.
All three senators, clearly angered by the government's hard line, appeared before the Senate last week to make stunning allegations that they were victims of conspiracies, personal vendettas and were approached with backroom deals in attempts to lessen the PR damage to Conservatives.
Duffy said he was threatened with expulsion from the Senate if he didn't go along with the plan to repay his expenses.
He added the prime minister himself ordered him to repay the money, something Harper confirmed. The prime minister also reiterated in the House of Commons that he had no knowledge that Nigel Wright, his former chief of staff, cut a $90,000 cheque to Duffy to pay the senator's expenses although he acknowledged a few others did.
If the suspension motions pass this week, the three senators — all of them currently under an RCMP investigation — would be without paycheques within days. Former Liberal Sen. Mac Harb quit the chamber in August amid his own alleged expenses improprieties and is also being investigated.
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