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WASHINGTON (AP) – The Senate began debating a $7.5 billion farm assistance package on Monday that faces a White House veto threat because it would spend $2 billion more than President Bush wants.

By a 95-2 vote, senators voted to begin considering the legislation, with only Sens. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., voting against it. But that one-sided vote belied what is expected to be several contentious days of battling over the bill.

In a statement delivered to senators, White House budget director Mitchell Daniels renewed a White House threat to veto the measure.

Daniels wrote that $5.5 billion is “the maximum amount the administration would support,” a sum matching what the House provided in a bill it approved in June and the amount set aside for the legislation in Congress’ budget.

The Senate is “already starting to ’Christmas Tree’ it,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, referring to the practice of adding items to a must-pass bill. “We’re back into the classic Washington game of spending more.”

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, plans to offer the House-passed bill as an amendment, thus shrinking the measure’s size to $5.5 billion. The committee rejected a bill of that size 12-9.

Democrats said the $7.5 billion measure was a fair response to problems on the farm.

“Without the assistance what’s in this bill, tens of thousands are in danger or going out of business,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has said he is determined to send Bush a final version of the bill by the end of this week, when Congress is scheduled to begin its month-long August recess. Unless the $5.5 billion in the bill is spent by the time fiscal 2001 ends on Sept. 30, Congress will lose the ability to provide the money.

The extra $2 billion in the Senate bill would come from the fiscal 2002 budget. Even so, spending it will make it that much harder for Bush and Congress to live within next year’s budget without eating into Medicare surpluses, which Democrats and many Republicans in Congress consider politically risky.

Beyond the spending fight, another battle is expected over efforts by Northeastern senators to extend the Northeast Dairy Compact. That 1996 law, which expires Sept. 30, lets those states set wholesale milk prices above federal levels – which is bitterly opposed by lawmakers from midwestern dairy states.

The Senate bill contains $5.5 billion for direct payments to grain and cotton farmers, nearly $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.

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