The Federal Opposition has orchestrated a Senate tactic that will leave the Government with a new dilemma in the final sitting week of the year.
It comes as the Government struggles with its plan to allow universities to set their own fees.
The Government wants the package of higher education bills through the Senate this week, but so far it does not have the numbers, and independent Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie has denounced the proposals as unfair.
South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon also confirmed this morning that he "can't" support the package.
Any vote will now be delayed by a procedural manoeuvre instigated last night by Labor's Stephen Conroy which blindsided the Government.
Senator Conroy brought on a government bill to get rid of red tape, but added a clause insisting on an open tender process for buying new submarines.
His tactic was to put pressure on South Australian Liberals who have been calling for the submarines to be built in their home state.
"You have said this is what you believe should happen - well now is the chance for you to prove that what you have been saying is what you are going to do," he said.
The Greens and all but two of the crossbenchers backed Labor, and now the Government cannot return to its higher education plan until the red tape bill has been dealt with.
The red tape removal bill will then be sent to the Lower House with the awkward new section on a submarine tender attached.
Manager of Government Business Mitch Fifield was furious about what he called a stunt and "one of the most blatant and significant breaches of faith that I have seen in my 10 years".
"It is one of the most appalling things I have seen," Senator Fifield said.
The Government wants to get the higher education changes through the Senate this week and has made some concessions to crossbench demands, but not enough to win the six votes it needs.
Senator Xenophon said he was sceptical about the proposals.
"I can't support it," he told Radio National. "I think we need to move very cautiously on this.
"These changes aren't due to come into force until 2016. There's still time. I think the sector needs to know one way or another what's happened by early next year."
Lambie savages 'born-to-rule' Liberals
Earlier Senator Lambie denounced the proposed higher education changes.
"The haves in a future Australian society dominated by Liberal policies presented to this Parliament in recent times will be guaranteed to have more, and the have-nots will be forced to fight among themselves for a fair go and a smaller share of the Australian common wealth," she told the Senate.
The Government is continuing to negotiate with crossbenchers, but Senator Lambie said she was not impressed with Education Minister Christopher Pyne.
"The haste in which the current Education Minister is pushing this deal reminds me of a dodgy used car salesman trying to flog a lemon in Sydney's western suburbs, and I'm not buying it," she said.
Senator Lambie said fellow crossbencher Ricky Muir's decision could be crucial, and urged him to think carefully.
"I ask that before Ricky votes, that Ricky consider the tens of thousands of children who come from working-class backgrounds who will never be given the opportunity to better themselves and improve their lot in life through a university education because the Liberals' cost will scare them and stop them from even dreaming of a uni degree," she said.
"This legislation is deliberately designed to keep working-class people in their place by Liberals who think they are born to rule and lord over normal Australians."
But Liberal senator Cory Bernardi rejected that view.
"I support this bill, not because I am part of the landed gentry seeking to oppress the working class or to stop the impoverished from receiving an education. Such nonsense doesn't reflect any of the facts within this bill," Senator Bernardi said in response to Senator Lambie's contribution.
University of Canberra vice chancellor Stephen Parker has also denounced the plan.
He spoke at a rally yesterday and put the text of that address on his blog on the university's website.
He called the plan unfair and poorly designed policy that would blight the lives of a generation.
It is unclear what chance the Government has of getting its legislative program through the Senate, which will reconvene today at noon (AEDT).
"The Government has had one day of the four days of sittings, no bills have been passed. Three days to go, maybe about 20 bills they are trying to push through," Greens senator Lee Rhiannon said last night.
Among the bills with an uncertain future this week is one to abolish the National Water Commission.
The Government wants to give its functions to the Productivity Commission, but the state of the Senate may mean the commission survives by default at least until next year.