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Liberal defeat unlikely

OTTAWA

Liberal government appears to have the numbers to survive tonight's two-hour stretch of consecutive confidence votes, but MPs on both sides say the volatility of the Commons means the government's defeat cannot be ruled out.

The Conservatives are expected to be down at least two votes as Dave Chatters continues to battle cancer and Gurmant Grewal remains on stress leave.

With those two MPs missing, the Liberals and NDP could again combine to assure a tie in the House even if independent MPs Pat O'Brien and David Kilgour vote against the government.

Beginning at 10 p.m., MPs will vote on at least 17 separate motions and bills, most of which the Liberals declared matters of confidence yesterday. The votes deal with parliamentary approval of operational funds for the government and the government's main budget bill, C-43.

Mr. O'Brien gave Liberals a scare early last week when he quit the caucus to protest against what he said was an attempt to rush through same-sex marriage legislation. He threatened to vote against the government on a confidence matter if it would block same-sex marriage.

Mr. O'Brien had declined interviews since his announcement, but yesterday struck a more conciliatory tone.

The MP told The Globe and Mail he is encouraged by comments made by Justice Minister Irwin Cotler that the government is open to amendments that would strengthen religious protections in the legislation.

While such amendments would not cause him to vote for the bill, they would stop him from voting against the government on a confidence matter, he said. Although Conservative leaders continued to say they will push for strong attendance tonight, some Tory MPs acknowledge many in the caucus have lost their appetite for an immediate election.

Newfoundland Tory MP Loyola Hearn said he will be watching political developments throughout the day and if it appears the government could fall, he will consider abstaining from the vote to ensure the Atlantic accord is approved.

"We're almost reaching for the cheque. Are we going to cut off our fingers?" he said. "I don't see any appetite whatsoever to put this country into an election right now."

Nova Scotia Tory MP Gerald Keddy said yesterday that while he and about half of his Conservative colleagues do not want an election right now, he believes it is "very likely" the Liberals will engineer their own defeat this week to take advantage of their recent spike in the polls.

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