The Liberals are facing their first showdown with a more independent Red Chamber, with senators preparing to recommend their own batch of changes to the government's doctor-assisted dying bill as the Supreme Court of Canada's June 6 deadline looms.
The government hopes to pass Bill C-14 in the House of Commons next week, after a parliamentary committee made a handful of minor amendments to the legislation without significantly altering who will be eligible for doctor-assisted dying in Canada.
The Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee, which heard from 66 witnesses during its week-long prestudy of the bill, will also present recommendations for the House to consider next week. If it passes in the House, as expected, the bill will then make its way to the Senate to continue the legislative process. But senators say the prestudy will end up saving time at the committee stage.
Conservative Senator Bob Runciman, who chairs the legal committee, said he believes senators will make "stronger recommendations" than their elected counterparts. When asked if the bill could change significantly once it gets to the Senate, he answered: "Absolutely."
Both Liberal and Conservative senators on the committee say they aren't satisfied with the changes made by the parliamentary committee, even though some of the senators' ideas have already been reviewed and rejected by the MPs.
"We're not lined up like lead soldiers, you know, falling in place one after the other," Senate Liberal Serge Joyal said in an interview. "There's a high level of independence in the Senate."
The types of changes to be proposed are mixed – with some senators saying the bill goes too far, while others arguing it does not go far enough.
Some Conservatives say they want more protections for institutions that refuse to participate in assisted dying and more restrictions for those with mental illness and psychological suffering, as well as to remove nurse practitioners from performing the procedure.
"I don't think that nurse practitioners should have the same abilities as doctors to both approve the patient's assisted suicide, to assess competency and to administer it," Conservative Senator Denise Batters said.
Senate Liberals such as Mr. Joyal want the definition of "grievous and irremediable" removed from the bill, which says a patient's natural death must be "reasonably foreseeable" to access the procedure.
"I strongly feel that that section of the bill is unconstitutional," Mr. Joyal said.
The Senate is now split into three factions, made up of 42 Conservatives, 23 independents and 22 Senate Liberals, who are no longer part of the government's caucus.
With all senators allowed a free vote, the outcome is unpredictable and it's not entirely clear how the government's representative in the Senate, Independent Senator Peter Harder, will work to get the legislation passed.
If changes are made once the bill gets to the Senate, it must return to the House for another vote – putting the June 6 deadline in jeopardy. After that date, the Supreme Court's decision would stand as the federal legal framework for the procedure – although some have said the court's decision is better than a flawed bill.
Conservative Senator Don Plett, who wants more protections for children and the mentally ill, said he's not concerned if the bill is delayed so proper debate can take place. "I am one of those people that do not believe that June 6 needs to be a drop-dead date," he said.
Mr. Harder said he doesn't want to prejudge the bill's contents before it comes to the Senate, noting that MPs can still introduce amendments this week during debates in the Commons.
"We'll see what bill we get," he said. "The Senate is an independent body and it will review the legislation taking into account, I'm sure, the views of the bill as it arrives and the considerations [of] the Senate itself."
Meanwhile, Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, who served as joint chair of a special parliamentary committee that studied the issue this winter, said he can no longer support his government's legislation.
"I will not vote for the bill as it stands right now, because I don't believe – in my opinion, my humble opinion – that it meets the Charter requirements," he said.