MPs pass emergency aid bill after overnight compromise

A deal has been reached to get the federal government’s aid package through the House of Commons, one day later than planned.

The COVID-19 Emergency Response Act passed third reading just before 6 a.m. EDT Wednesday after significant delays caused by opposition to the Liberals’ attempt to grant broad spending and taxing powers to cabinet without parliamentary oversight – something both the Conservatives and NDP described as an unexpected attempt to acquire a blank cheque.

Both opposition parties urged the government to split those powers into a separate bill from the $82 billion in aid measures for Canadians and businesses, as no party appeared to take issue with the financial assistance.

Hours of tense negotiations resulted in the emergency parliamentary sitting lasting long past its expected end time. Early Wednesday morning, a modified version of the bill received approval from all sides.

The modifications include removing the Liberals’ ability to raise taxes unilaterally and shortening the period in which the government can take emergency spending measures without Parliament’s approval from two years to six months.

During those six months, the new spending authority is limited to specific categories including income support for Canadians, the purchase of medical supplies, public health-related programs, covering expenses incurred by the government and helping provinces and territories pay for emergency response needs. Provinces and territories are also receiving an extra $500 million in federal funding.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is given some new powers, including the ability to authorize the borrowing of money without Parliament’s approval if it is needed for legislatively-approved payments or to “maintain the efficiency of the financial system in Canada.” This authority, too, is only valid through the end of September, and requires Morneau to report to MPs within 30 days of any borrowing.

For Canadians, the biggest direct impact comes from the $82 billion in aid, which is split into $27 billion in direct funding and $55 billion in tax deferrals and similar measures.

This includes the creation of two new benefits for workers whose jobs are affected by the coronavirus pandemic, expanded employment insurance benefits and increased payments through the Canada Child Benefit.

The bill had been expected to pass unanimously, but the first sign of trouble came Tuesday afternoon when Ottawa-area Conservative MP Scott Reid said he would vote against it – against his party’s wishes – because of a procedural issue.

Reid was not present during the overnight voting session, but one of his Conservative colleagues – rural Ontario MP Michael Chong – voiced opposition of his own, citing a clause that he said allows the employment minister to amend a law with only Morneau’s approval needed.

The bill will now go to the Senate, which is expected to pass it later in the day. A royal assent ceremony – the final step before the bill becomes law – is also expected to happen before the end of the day.

With files from CTV News producers Rachel Aiello and Mackenzie Gray

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