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Liberals raise prospect of EI confidence vote

OTTAWA - Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is rattling the election sabre, saying he can "foresee" forcing a confidence vote over EI benefits even as he insists he wants to make Parliament work.

OTTAWA - Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is rattling the election sabre, saying he can "foresee" forcing a confidence vote over EI benefits even as he insists he wants to make Parliament work.

He weighed his words Monday when asked if he would risk a snap election by forcing the vote as early as mid-June.

"I can foresee it, and I can foresee it in the near future. But I repeat the word: foresee. Let me say it again so it's perfectly clear. I am trying to make Parliament work for Canadians.

"I am trying to get EI improved for all Canadians - that's what I'm trying to do."

Ignatieff would not set a timeline for the vote that could potentially topple the minority Harper government. The Liberals would need the support of both the NDP and Bloc Quebecois to win.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has categorically dismissed Liberal calls for a single, nationwide EI eligibility threshold of 360 hours worked. Moreover, a combative Harper said this month he'd "take on" Ignatieff over the issue.

Demand for EI has surged by more than 20 per cent in parts of the country hit hardest by the economic slide. Conservative popularity has also taken an apparent hit, especially in Quebec, in recent public opinion polls.

The Liberals say their proposed changes would offer benefits to 150,000 unemployed who are now frozen out. They've called it a short-term fix that would cost taxpayers about $1.5 billion a year until the worst of the recession is over.

"The good thing about that is that it is the fastest and most direct way to get stimulus into the economy," Ignatieff said Monday.

Not so, says the Harper government.

Helping laid-off workers upgrade their skills as the world waits for the economy to rebound makes more sense, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said.

She added that now isn't the time to ask voters which plan they prefer because mounting an election campaign would derail the work being done to boost the economy.

"It's important we focus not on partisan politics right now, but that we (move) forward, let us keep moving to get the economic stimulus out there to create programs like this," Finley told a news conference in Oshawa, a city sideswiped by manufacturing shutdowns and layoffs.

"We don't need another election right now."

Finley visited a college to provide more details of $500 million in funding - originally announced in the spring budget - to help as many as 50,000 older workers get skills training and EI benefits when they lose long-held jobs.

So-called "long-tenured" workers could receive an extension of EI benefits for up to two years if they participate in longer-term training for a new career, as well as up to 12 weeks of benefits while searching for a job.

And workers who spend all or part of their severance package on skills training could become eligible for benefits sooner.

"This is an opportunity for people to take this time - people who are unfortunate enough to lose their jobs - to get the skills, to get the training so they'll have long-term jobs for the future," Finley said.

"That's our approach because that's what's needed.

"The prime minister's been very clear, that bringing in a 45-day work year is not going to help the economy one little bit," Finley said of the 360-hour Liberal plan.

"Over 82 per cent of the people who have paid into employment insurance do qualify for the benefits (and) we've added an extra five weeks of regular benefits because we recognize that it's harder to find a job in tough times."

Finley said the new funding will become available "immediately," and eligible applicants will soon receive notices in the mail.

The NDP and Bloc Quebecois have hinted at more willingness to work with the Conservatives on certain issues as Liberal polling numbers climb.

NDP Leader Jack Layton said he wants Parliament to adopt his party's bill to improve access and benefits for laid-off workers. It comes up for a vote next week.

"And then it would be open for amendment in the subsequent couple of weeks and could be back here before the summer - perhaps with some sort of a compromise that would help people who are out of work."

 
 
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