Harper, Ignatieff make progress in talks to avoid election

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff appear close to a pact that will allow the Conservative government to survive a confidence vote that could trigger a rare summer election.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is seen leaving a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper which was held in the prime minister's office in the Langevin Block across from Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff appear close to a pact that will allow the Conservative government to survive a confidence vote that could trigger a rare summer election.

The tentative agreement includes a blue-ribbon panel — half of whose members are to be appointed by the Liberals — to examine possible enhancements to employment insurance over the summer.

A well-placed source said late Tuesday that’s only one aspect of a larger deal and cautioned that nothing had yet been locked in.

News of the potential pact trickled out after Ignatieff and Harper held two face-to-face, hour-long meetings, the first at the prime minister’s office in the Langevin Block, the second after dinner at the prime minister’s official residence. Both sides described the meetings as “productive.”

The two men promised to speak again Wednesday morning.

No other details were provided by either side. Their mutually agreed upon circumspection suggested the two political rivals were close to a deal to stave off a summer vote they both say they do not want.

Representatives for Harper and Ignatieff issued almost identically worded, brief statements saying that the two leaders agreed to “talk” or “speak” again Wednesday morning. The choice of wording suggests the pair do not feel it necessary to meet again in person.

That in turn suggests they require only a last-minute chat to verify details before reporting to their respective caucuses, which hold regular weekly meetings every Wednesday morning.

Ignatieff will face a divided caucus. Many Liberals are eager to bring down the Conservative government while polls show their party with a slim lead. But others fear the party isn’t sufficiently ready for an election and worry about a voter backlash if they force an election in the midst of a deep recession.

Virtually no Liberal MP wants to be seen to be caving in and propping up Harper’s minority Conservative government yet again as they did throughout Stephane Dion’s two-year tenure at the Liberal helm.

Ignatieff will have to persuade them that he’s wrested sufficient concessions from Harper to justify supporting the government in a confidence vote scheduled for Friday.

That may be difficult. A panel to examine EI changes is a far cry from Ignatieff’s initial demand last month for a national standard of 360 hours of work to qualify for employment insurance.

Throughout the day Tuesday, spokespeople for both Harper and Ignatieff were unusually tight-lipped, refusing even to confirm where or when the men were meeting.

Ignatieff and Harper holed up late Tuesday at 24 Sussex Dr. for an hour-long, post-dinner meeting.

That followed an earlier hour-long tete-a-tete at the prime minister’s Langevin Block office across the street from the hurly-burly of what sounded like pre-election posturing in the House of Commons.

Ignatieff simply waved as he left the Prime Minister’s Office and stepped into a waiting car.

The pair agreed to the talks after Ignatieff demanded answers Monday on a series of economic and policy questions.

Specifically, Ignatieff wants to know:

— Details of Harper’s proposal to change the employment insurance system.

— When the ballooning deficit will be eliminated.

— How much money has been spent on stimulus projects.

— How the medical isotope crisis will be addressed.

If he doesn’t like the answers, the Liberals could bring the eight-month-old government down in Friday’s confidence vote on supplementary budget estimates. The Bloc Quebecois and the NDP have already said they will vote against the Conservatives.

Both Harper and Ignatieff insist they don’t want a summer election but neither do they want to lose the political upper hand.

Ignatieff doesn’t want to be painted as weak and indecisive like his predecessor, Dion.

Harper can’t afford to appear intractable or secretive, for fear of cementing negative perceptions about him among the electorate.

But if no news is good news, the silence around the meetings seemed to suggest a truce was within their grasp.

That didn’t stop MPs from all parties from having a rousing, ultra-partisan question period while the two leaders chatted behind closed doors.

The Liberals demanded the answer to one of Ignatieff’s key questions: how much money has actually been spent, not just announced, on stimulus projects over the past 120 days?

Treasury Board President Vic Toews accused the Liberals of being “irresponsible” for threatening an election.

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