OTTAWA - NDP Leader Jack Layton has enlisted one of his predecessors to sound out former prime minister Jean Chretien on the possibility of a Liberal-New Democrat coalition government.

A senior NDP official told The Canadian Press that Ed Broadbent spoke to Chretien at least four times after Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivered an economic update that threatened to bankrupt the opposition parties.

"The idea is to have elder statesmen smoothing things out," the official said.

"It's going to be a long day."

A Liberal MP confirmed that the talks were going on and the NDP said Broadbent was having a morning meeting with Layton.

Chretien was seen on his way to his downtown Ottawa office, but when asked about the coalition talks he feigned an inability to understand English.

"Je ne comprends pas anglais," he said.

The two former leaders, who sat opposite each other in the Commons for years, were asked to try to finesse a deal to defeat the minority Conservative government and form a coalition with support from the Bloc Quebecois.

The NDP and the Liberals together don't command a majority of the Commons seats.

The government has been silent on the matter, although Conservative officials met late into the night in the Prime Minister's Office in the Langevin Block, across from Parliament Hill.

Tory MPs seemed thunderstruck late Thursday by the possibility that their second term might come to a sudden end. As some of them piled onto a parliamentary shuttle bus, they were heard incredulously asking opposition MPs if they're serious about a coalition.

The opposition parties all say Flaherty's mini-budget, which strictly limits federal spending, bans public-sector strikes through 2011, and denies federal parties $30 million in annual funding, is ideologically driven and offers no stimulus package to deal with the economic crisis.

The annual funding issue is a potentially lethal poison pill that would financially cripple every party except the Tories.

Flaherty insisted the party financing changes are part of the fiscal framework and will be considered a matter of confidence in the Commons. He said an accompanying bill will be put to a vote Monday.

The government's hard line set off another round of political chicken just five weeks after the Oct. 14 election returned Prime Minister Stephen Harper to power with a strengthened minority

Historian Michael Behiels said Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean wouldn't have much choice but to give a coalition a chance given that the last election was just over a month ago.

However, he predicted that a coalition would be short-lived and would lead right into another election.

The Liberals are taking the prospect of a coalition so seriously that some MPs are privately discussing ways to dump Stephane Dion as leader without waiting for their party's scheduled May 2 leadership vote.

But party insiders say that with Dion as a lame duck, supporters of leadership front-runners Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae say the question of who would be prime minister in a coalition has become the hot issue.

It could be a deal-breaker, some said.