The Senate has given up trying to agree on an overhaul of farm programs before Christmas, pushing the issue into an election year in which control of the chamber is at stake.

In a victory for the Bush administration, majority Democrats were unable Wednesday, for the third time in a week, to muster the 60 votes necessary to bring a farm bill to a final vote. President Bush opposed the bill, which would boost spending by nearly 80 percent over the next decade.

Democrats contend the deadlock puts at risk $170 billion set aside for farm programs in this year's congressional agreement. Republicans rejected the warning and claimed that Democrats were trying to ram through a partisan bill to win political points with farm groups. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) says he would try to pass the Democratic bill again when lawmakers return in late January from their holiday recess.

Several farm-state senators are up for re-election in 2002, including the Agriculture Committee chairman, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa); Arkansas Republican Tim Hutchinson; Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota; and Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone. ``It's a setback,' Harkin says.

Republicans claims there is plenty of time and money available to write a farm bill next year. Existing programs expire in the fall. Bush believes the Democratic bill raises crop subsidies so high that it would encourage excess production and drive down commodity prices. ``What we have done is give ourselves a second chance,' says Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The Democratic bill would reauthorize farm programs through 2006. Most of the money would continue to go to grain, cotton and soybean farms, but the bill offers new subsidies for a variety of additional commodities, including milk, honey and lentils. It also doubles conservation spending. The administration criticized both that bill and another one passed by the GOP-controlled House in October and urged Congress to delay finishing work on them until 2002.

Both bills risk breaking U.S. trade commitments and provide too much money to big farms that least need the assistance, the administration says.

Farm groups are worried that lawmakers will be less generous with agricultural subsidies after the release next month of new budget forecasts, which are expected to project several years of deficits. ``The psychology will be altered,' says Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. ``These needs that are a very important priority for big sections of the country, will be pushed to the side. That is the risk.'

Before Wednesday's vote, Democratic leaders sidestepped a battle over the size of subsidies that individual farmers could receive by blocking an amendment by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to tighten payment limits. The Democratic bill would allow farmers to continue to receive virtually unlimited amounts of crop subsidies, a concession designed to win votes of southern Democrats.

Grassley wants to set a limit of $150,000 per farmer. Advocates of payment limits say that big subsidies drive up land values and rents, which makes it more difficult for small and medium-size farms to compete with larger operations. Opponents of such caps say they penalize big, low-cost farmers.

Associated Press