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Politics Bill Morneau digs in for standoff with Senate over budget bill

Finance Minister Bill Morneau appears at a Senate committee on Bill C-44, An Act to implement certain provisions of the budget, in Ottawa on Thursday, June 15, 2017.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Finance Minister Bill Morneau said his government will insist on getting its budget bill – and the Canada Infrastructure Bank – passed into law before Parliament breaks for its summer recess.

With just a few days to go before MPs are scheduled to head home, the clear deadline from the minister sets the stage for a potential standoff between the House and the Senate should the elected House reject any changes from the unelected Senate.

With his budget bill in jeopardy, Mr. Morneau met with senators for nearly two hours Thursday in an effort to convince them not to amend or divide the government's omnibus budget bill, C-44. He also sent a letter to the Senate this week outlining the government's rationale for the legislation.

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Senators have expressed a wide range of concerns with the bill, including that, at more than 300 pages, it is too large and complex to allow for proper study of its various parts, which include the creation of several entirely new laws. Bill C-44 creates the Canada Infrastructure Bank Act, the Borrowing Authority Act, the Invest in Canada Act and the Services Fees Act, all of which have attracted concern from senators.

But the proposed $35-billion infrastructure bank continues to be the most controversial aspect of the legislation as senators spent the week discussing whether or not to remove that section entirely from the budget bill.

Mr. Morneau made it clear on Thursday that he wants the Senate to pass the budget bill "intact" before the summer break.

"We put the infrastructure bank in our budget because we believe it is an important budgetary measure," he told reporters following his appearance before the Senate national finance committee.

"We think it's going to have a big impact on our economy in the short, medium and long term. And that is why we expect that to be in our budget that we pass this spring prior to leaving for summer recess," Mr. Morneau said.

The House of Commons is scheduled to sit until the end of next week.

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Historically, the House usually rises a few days early.

However this year, the government will be reluctant to let MPs leave for summer before it is clear what the Senate will do with the budget bill.

When the Senate amends legislation, the bill is sent back to the House of Commons.

Over the past year, there have been situations where the House has accepted Senate amendments and other instances where it has rejected the amendments and sent the bill back to the Senate in its original form.

That occurred earlier this week on another government bill, C-4, related to unionization rules. The Senate decided not to insist on its amendments in a narrow 43-41 vote.

During Thursday's hearings, Mr. Morneau appeared frustrated at times with the criticism of the budget, which has come from Conservative, Liberal and independent senators.

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Some senators have also spoken in favour of the government's bill and the infrastructure bank.

Mr. Morneau said some of their concerns about how the infrastructure bank will operate can be addressed over time since this is established through policy decisions, rather than amendments to the budget bill.

Senate Speaker George Furey ruled late Thursday that a proposed motion from Independent Senator André Pratte to split the budget bill was not procedurally in order. He said senators do, however, have the power to amend government bills or delete certain sections. Some senators successfully challenged the ruling, overturning it in a 38-33 vote.

However, Mr. Pratte voted against overturning it. He said he did so out of respect for the speaker, but still intended to move his motion. The issue was unresolved when the Senate session ended Thursday night. The Senate will resume sitting on Monday.

Conservative Senator Raynell Andreychuk, who was among those who questioned the minister Thursday at committee, said Mr. Morneau did not ease her concerns with the bill.

"It didn't convince me," she said after the meeting with Mr. Morneau. "I think he came back and reinforced what he said before."

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