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FARM aid stalls as senators battle size of package, Bush presses veto threat

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A $7.5 billion package of special farm assistance stalled in the Senate as Democrats risked a presidential veto rather than give in to White House demands for a bill offering farmers $2 billion less.

The White House says $5.5 billion is enough, given recent improvements in the agricultural economy.

President Bush pressed the issue in a private meeting Tuesday with Republican senators and later told reporters he wants lawmakers ``to stay within the limits of the budget.''

But in a party-line vote, the Senate rejected, 52-48, a $5.5 billion GOP alternative identical to a measure that passed the House in June.

``We have to meet our needs,'' said the Agriculture Committee chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

It was not clear when the Senate would vote on the $7.5 billion package backed by Democrats. The Senate was expected to move on to other bills Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he is determined to send Bush a final version of the farm measure by the end of this week, when Congress is scheduled to begin its monthlong August recess.

``Everybody acknowledges that this is a must-pass bill,'' Daschle said. ``I don't think anybody would feel good about leaving here without completing it.''

Also looming over the farm bill is a battle over price controls for milk. An amendment offered Tuesday, then withdrawn, would expand a New England price-setting system, set to expire Sept. 30, and create another such compact for the South.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he might offer the dairy measure again Wednesday. Sen. Herbert Kohl, D-Wis., claimed to have enough votes to sustain a filibuster, a parliamentary delay that would effectively kill the legislation.

The price controls are bitterly opposed by farmers in major dairy-producing areas of the Midwest and West.

The congressional budget agreement provided $5.5 billion in farm aid for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. Democrats want to use all of that and $2 billion set aside for farm programs in fiscal 2002.

The Senate bill contains $5.5 billion for direct payments to grain and cotton farmers, almost $900 million more than the House approved.

In addition, the Senate measure includes $542 million for conservation programs, $150 million for apple growers, $53 million for sugar growers, and $20 million to subsidize some older Americans who shop at farmers markets.

In a rebuff to Senate Democrats, the House Agriculture Committee's Republican chairman and senior Democrat issued a joint statement late Tuesday urging swift passage of an aid bill.

``It is unwise to encumber the bill with unnecessary, nonemergency items like increased conservation spending when our farmers' livelihoods hang in the balance,'' said Reps. Larry Combest, R-Texas, and Charles Stenholm, D-Texas.

Spending the extra $2 billion will make it that much harder for Bush and Congress to live within next year's budget without eating into Medicare surpluses, Republicans contend.

Congress has provided farmers $25 billion in special assistance over the last three years, mostly to compensate for collapsed commodity prices.

The Agriculture Department estimates net farm income this year at $42.4 billion, $2.8 billion below last year. The 2001 estimate does not include the supplemental aid lawmakers are considering.

Two Republicans broke ranks to oppose the $5.5 billion measure on Tuesday, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas. One Democrat voted for it, John Edwards of North Carolina.
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