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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 17, 2010.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Federal Conservative senators have defeated a private-member's bill on climate change that was passed by the majority of MPs in the House of Commons, marking the first time Prime Minister Stephen Harper has used the clout he has built in the Upper Chamber to kill a law his minority government does not support.

The defeat by unelected senators of the bill known as the Climate Change Accountability Act, which was introduced in the House by New Democrat MP Bruce Hyer, prompted cries of indignation from NDP Leader Jack Layton and the Liberals who sponsored it in the Senate.

It also announced a change of attitude on the part of Mr. Harper who, when the Liberals dominated the Senate, often railed against the possibility that unelected senators would kill, delay or alter bills that elected politicians had passed in the Commons.

Mr. Layton reminded Mr. Harper during the daily Question Period of his previous assertion that every prime minister has a moral obligation to respect the will of the House. "That is what he said," the NDP Leader told the Commons. "So why did he order his senators in the other place to kill the climate change bill that was adopted by the majority of MPs in this House?"

Mr. Harper replied that his Conservative Party has been consistent in its opposition to Bill C-311, which, he said, was a "completely irresponsible" piece of legislation.

"It sets irresponsible targets, does not lay out any measure of achieving them, other than by shutting down sections of the Canadian economy and throwing hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of people out of work," Mr. Harper said.

It was unclear on Wednesday who prompted the vote that led to the defeat of the Climate Change Accountability Act on Tuesday afternoon after the bill had languished untouched and undebated for many months in the Upper Chamber.

The Conservatives said the Liberals called the vote. The Liberals blamed the Conservatives. The official transcript of the Senate proceeding does not indicate who was responsible.

Taken by surprise, the Liberal senators couldn't get enough of their members into their seats. The Conservatives, who now outnumber their Liberal counterparts, then defeated the legislation 43 to 32.

"The government was not going to miss an opportunity to turn down a bill that is injurious to our economy," said Marjory LeBreton, the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

The bill, which was killed two weeks before Canada is to participate in a major international conference on climate change in Mexico, would have required the federal government to establish targets to bring greenhouse gas emissions to 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and to set a long-term target to bring emissions 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Ned Franks, a constitutional scholar at Queen's University, said the Senate should always be ranked second in importance to the House of Commons.

"If a minority government is not prepared to respect the will of the House of Commons, it shouldn't have to rely on an appointed Senate, a Senate that they even stacked themselves," Dr. Franks said. "It's so rare. Deliberately snubbing the will of the House of Commons on a bill that was clearly not a money issue is of dubious legitimacy."

Although the Liberals used the majority they enjoyed in the Senate during the first years of the Harper government to suggest changes to some legislation, and delayed one or two bills, they never killed bills that had been passed by a majority of the Commons.

In fact, since 1961, the Senate has only twice killed a bill that had been passed by elected MPs.

Mr. Harper, who came to office four years ago promising to appoint only senators who have been elected, has stacked the Senate with appointees who are friendly to his Conservative government. The Conservatives now outnumber the Liberals and will soon have an outright majority in the Upper House.