owdown over the federal Liberals' budget bill is still possible, but now will not come until final voting on the legislation.
Senior Conservatives are indicating that they will not defeat the bill when it is next before the Commons -- for second reading -- but will try to push through significant changes after that, when it goes to the Commons finance committee. Opposition parties have a majority on the committee.
The move has given the minority government some temporary breathing space in the controversy over the budget bill's Kyoto environmental measures. But the Tories warn there could still be a showdown at third and final reading if the Liberals try to undo the opposition's changes.
"There wouldn't be a showdown, I don't think, at second reading," Conservative finance critic Monte Solberg said. "The showdown, if there's going to be one, will be at third reading."
The Tories say they will push to split the government's bill into three parts.
Their plan would hive off the Kyoto-related changes to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, as well as the measures to implement the offshore oil agreement with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
The Tories say the offshore deal would be passed into law faster if it was not attached to the budget bill.
Liberal John McKay, who is a member of the Commons finance committee, said there is little the Liberals can do, such as splitting the bill, to stop amendments at that stage.
"I would say they're going to win that vote," he said.
It would then be up to the Liberals to decide whether they want to reverse the changes made in committee and declare those votes matters of confidence.
Both Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Jack Layton made public calls yesterday for Prime Minister Paul Martin to voluntarily split the environmental clause from the budget bill before it gets to committee.
Mr. Solberg said he is hoping to sell his caucus on further policy changes the party could make in committee through agreements with the Bloc Québécois, but would not offer specifics.
Conservative House Leader Jay Hill, in a statement from Australia where he is studying options for electoral reform, confirmed that his party is considering several changes to the budget bill.
"The bill could end up looking quite different. It all depends on how different Paul Martin would allow, before he declares that the changes constitute lack of confidence in his government," said Mr. Hill.
A spokesman for the Bloc Québécois refused to speculate on what might happen to the bill at the committee stage but said the party continues to oppose the budget.
The decision to insert the environmental clause -- which would allow Ottawa to regulate greenhouse gas emissions -- into the budget bill is also dividing Liberals.
Toronto MP Alan Tonks, the environment committee chairman, warned Liberal colleagues against linking the environmental amendments to the budget bill even before the budget measure was tabled last week. He now says it appears the government is trying to short-circuit his committee.
Finance committee chairman Massimo Pacetti, a Montreal Liberal, also wondered aloud whether the Kyoto measure should be going to the environment panel rather than his committee. "I'm not sure this is a money issue."
The bottom line, Mr. Pacetti said, is that he wants to avoid an election because he's not at all sure he can explain to voters that they should vote Liberal "in order to take some kind of gas out of the atmosphere. I have a hard time understanding that myself."
Meanwhile, bureaucrats were still struggling yesterday to try to finalize the federal government's plans for Canada to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 270 megatonnes by 2012. When Ottawa originally signed on to the Kyoto accord three years ago the government believed the requirement to cut Canadian emissions from all sources would be less -- about 240 megatonnes.
The proposal now being discussed by officials would require heavy industry to reduce emissions by 39 megatonnes while previous proposals had these so-called large final emitters required to cut by 55 megatonnes.
How Canada will reach 270 megatonnes and how much this will cost has been the source of sharp disagreement for months between officials in Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada.
Cabinet ministers are scheduled to meet Monday evening to give political sign-off on the Kyoto implementation plan if the officials have reconciled their numbers by then.
In an open letter to Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams and Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm, Mr. Harper criticized the Liberals for linking the offshore oil deal to the Kyoto debate.
"A more dishonest and disingenuous approach to public policy is difficult to imagine," he wrote. "These new powers could well be targeted against the oil and gas industry, gutting any gains your province made in the offshore deal."
Mr. Layton held a press conference in Ottawa to urge Mr. Martin to split the bill before it gets to committee.
"What he's doing now isn't a recipe for cleaner air, it's a recipe for an election," he said.
Mr. Layton said he has not had any conversations with the other opposition parties about possible strategies when debate begins on the budget bill the week after next.