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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Liberal Party is divided over whether to bring down the minority Conservative government over its upcoming budget, a sign that Prime Minister Stephen Harper may stay in office longer than expected.
Liberal legislators and officials said on Wednesday there was no consensus on what position to take on three confidence votes that will quickly follow the Conservatives' budget on February 26.
The budget is now the main confidence vote the Conservatives must win to remain in power. The government holds only a minority of seats in the House of Commons and must win the support of at least one opposition party.
The Liberals, the main opposition party, took a major step on Tuesday toward ending their differences with the Conservatives over Canada's military mission in Afghanistan, which will be the subject of a confidence vote next month.
Unless Harper can strike a deal with the two smaller opposition parties, he must rely on the Liberals to vote for the budget, or at least abstain.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion says he will not make a decision until he has seen the document.
Some in his party are itching for an election, despite polls that show the most likely result would be another minority Conservative government.
"I haven't changed my view. I think the government needs to be brought down as soon as possible," said Liberal legislator Garth Turner.
"There are some of my colleagues who would rather have their kidneys harvested without anesthetic than go to an election, but that's kind of normal I think. In any caucus you're going to find hawks and doves," Turner told reporters.
Others are more cautious, noting that Canada is set to be hit by U.S. woes and that there might be more to be gained by waiting to see how the government handles a domestic slowdown.
"What would we go on?" asked one senior Liberal legislator, saying there would have to be "something egregious" in the budget not to support it.
Other parties mock the Liberals for having kept the Conservatives in power through a series of supporting votes or abstentions over the past year, but the legislator said there was no sign that voters were angry.
One senior party official said they were not detecting great public enthusiasm for an election over the budget. Fixed-date legislation brought in by Harper set the date of the next vote in October 2009 and stripped him of the power to call a vote whenever he wants.
"We get to decide when he is defeated. He doesn't," the Liberal official told Reuters.
Asked whether supporting the budget could be damaging politically, the official replied: "It's not a case of supporting the Conservatives over the budget, but rather a case of not bringing them down over it."
Both the Liberals and the separatist Bloc Quebecois say they want government spending to increase in the budget, an idea that does not enthuse Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
"We're always open to constructive suggestions but, quite frankly, what I've been seeing from the opposition parties is shopping lists of very expensive items that would put the country into deficit. We're going to run a surplus," Flaherty told reporters on Wednesday.
Canada's budget was balanced by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien in 1997-98 and the country has posted a surplus ever since.
If the Liberals do hold their fire it could help them to address their internal problems. The party's fund-raising efforts have fallen far short of the Conservatives' and officials are still looking for a campaign plane.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer and Louise Egan; Editing by Rob Wilson