02/26/2015 10:27 EST | Updated 04/28/2015 05:59 EDT

Bill C-51: Conservatives soften stance on expert testimony

After fending off accusations of ducking parliamentary scrutiny of its controversial anti-terror bill in the House, the government has offered to give the public safety committee significantly more time to hear from witnesses.

The move came in response to a New Democrat-driven filibuster that could have put the committee review on hold indefinitely while MPs bickered over the proposed work plan.

The new offer, which was introduced Thursday morning by Conservative MP Roxanne James, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney's parliamentary secretary, would allocate eight meetings for witness testimony. Each hearing would have two panels of up to three witnesses, for a total of 48 witness slots.

That would effectively double the initial offer of four meetings, in addition to one to hear from Blaney and Justice Minister Peter MacKay and their officials.

The New Democrats, meanwhile, still want to set aside 25 meetings to hear from witnesses, with just two experts per panel.

NDP Public Safety critic Randall Garrison stressed his party is willing to sit during afternoons, evenings and even during the upcoming constituency week in order to meet the March 31 deadline proposed by the Conservatives.

MPs on the committee are debating the competing timelines in public, although it's not clear the standoff will be resolved by the time the committee is scheduled to adjourn later Thursday morning.

NDP wants to hear from ex-PMs

Earlier this week, the committee spent nearly five hours huddled behind closed doors after the NDP launched a filibuster to protest what they saw as an attempt by the government to further limit discussion of the bill.

The New Democrats want to hear from as many as 50 witnesses, including four former prime ministers, six retired Supreme Court judges and three former members of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which oversees the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals have released their proposed witness lists.

If the committee can agree on a work plan today, hearings could get underway as early as next week, should MPs be willing to give up their scheduled constituency week that will see the House shut down until March 9.