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Skeletal Canadian parliament convenes to approve emergency cash

OTTAWA, March 24 (Reuters) - A handful of Canadian legislators convenes on Tuesday to give the government the power to inject billions of dollars in emergency cash to help individuals and businesses through the economic crunch caused by the new coronavirus outbreak.

To maintain social distancing, only 32 of the 338 members will sit, starting at 12:00 p.m. ET (1600 GMT), just hours before Ontario, the most populous of Canada’s 10 provinces, shuts all non-essential businesses.

The official opposition Conservative Party threatened to block the legislation late on Monday after it said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government wanted to give itself the power to spend without parliamentary approval until the end of 2021.

“We will authorize whatever spending measures are justified to respond to the situation, but we will not sign a blank check,” Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said late Monday.

Just a few hours later, the government promised changes to the draft document. Trudeau’s minority government requires opposition support to pass legislation.

The package of measures will only become law once the Senate, or upper chamber, adopts it on Wednesday.

Trudeau last week pledged C$27 billion ($18.6 billion) in direct support to families and businesses struggling because of the coronavirus outbreak, and said he was ready to do more. The government will provide C$55 billion ($38 billion) in additional aid to businesses and households through tax deferrals.

The number of people in Canada diagnosed with the illness caused by the new coronavirus is almost 2,100, and the death toll is 24.

Together with maturing bonds and refinancing of T-bills, emergency measures could lift Canadian dollar borrowing to about C$375 billion for the upcoming fiscal year, up nearly 40% from an estimated C$270 billion for 2019-20, according to Reuters calculations. Canada’s fiscal year ends March 31.

$1 = 1.4521 Canadian dollars Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Bernadette Baum