OTTAWA - After repeatedly blaming the Liberals for stalling its bid to suspend three disgraced former Conservative senators, the Harper government has decided it's in no rush after all.
The government leadership in the Senate moved to adjourn early Thursday and to take Friday off entirely.
That guarantees there will be no vote until Monday at the earliest on the proposal to suspend senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau without pay.
Having botched efforts to rush the suspensions through before the Conservative party's national convention, the government's abrupt switch to a more leisurely pace prompted speculation that it now simply wants to ensure there are no further explosive revelations on the Senate expenses scandal until the convention is over.
"I've thought for a long time that the rush to judgment here ... was an attempt by the Prime Minister's Office to shut (Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau) down, to shut them up, to prevent them from spilling even more details about the involvement of the Prime Minister's Office in this whole sordid tale," said James Cowan, the Liberal Senate leader.
"It blew up in their face and now they're on Plan B which is going to take them into next week."
Government Senate leader Claude Carignan denied the move was aimed at delaying any further embarrassments. He argued that he couldn't have forced a vote before Monday, although it was theoretically possible to do so on Friday — just in time for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's keynote speech to the convention.
Carignan said it's "a tradition" for the chamber not to sit during a political convention to allow a party's senators to attend.
That said, he acknowledged it may be difficult for many Conservative senators, who had cancelled plans to go to the convention because they had expected the Senate to be debating the suspension motions, to make last-minute arrangements to get to Calgary.
"Frankly no, I don't have any idea (how many will go) because with the switch in our plan, I know that some senators, many senators cancelled their flights and their hotels," said Carignan, who was himself planning to go.
The early adjournment Thursday upended the plans of at least one of three disgraced senators to rejoin the debate. Brazeau had intended to speak about the government's bid to suspend him, which he dubbed "a complete gong show."
But the government was likely more concerned about avoiding the spectre of Duffy lobbing more bombshells, the repercussions of which could overshadow Harper's crucial speech Friday evening at the convention.
In two riveting interventions earlier this week and last week, Duffy alleged that the PMO orchestrated a secret to deal to reimburse the Senate for his invalid living expense claims and coached him to lie about it.
Duffy also revealed that the Conservative party paid his legal fees of $13,500 — in addition to the previously known $90,000 given to him by Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to pay back the Senate.
Carignan had initially moved three separate motions to suspend Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau without pay, benefits, privileges or Senate resources for the duration of the parliamentary session, which could last for two years.
But after an attempt to impose a limit on debate time was ruled out of order on Wednesday, the government switched gears and introduced a new, single motion. It would suspend the trio without pay, privileges or Senate resources but would allow them to continue being covered by Senate drug, dental and life insurance plans.
That motion was formally introduced Thursday, followed immediately by another motion to limit debate to no more than six hours.
Cowan served notice that he will propose referring the suspension motion to a Senate committee, where the trio can be given a fair hearing and senators can consider the implications of sanctioning the three before the RCMP has concluded its investigation into their allegedly fraudulent expense claims.
All three were appointed by Harper in 2009 and would ordinarily be eligible for a generous Senate pension after serving six years in the chamber.
Carignan was unable to say Thursday whether the six years includes a period in which a senator is under suspension.
"It's a very good question, it's a legal question and I don't have this answer," he said.
The Senate's communications branch did not respond to a question about that issue.
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