The Senate yesterday defeated an amendment to the 1990 farm bill that would have excluded rich farmers from receiving agricultural subsidies.

The vote marked an important early victory for drafters of the bill, the omnibus legislation that will regulate the nation's agriculture for the next five years.

Opponents are seeking to amend some of its more controversial provisions, among them crop supports expected to pay farmers about $53 billion in subsidies and other benefits over the life of the bill.

But the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry handily withstood its first serious challenge when the full Senate by a vote of 66 to 30 killed an amendment that would have withheld payments from all farmers with annual gross sales of $500,000 per year or more.

Agriculture Committee sources said the victory could help the bill weather later challenges: "Senators don't like to waste their time," said a committee source. "If they see their amendments aren't going to get anywhere, they won't offer them."

Senate farm bill debate opened at 11 a.m. with committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) describing a "good bill" that had "broad bipartisan support."

But some committee members expressed dissatisfaction and promised amendments of their own. Committee member Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said he could not support the draft bill because it "fails to improve farmer incomes" or "distribute benefits more equitably."

Distribution of benefits was the subject of the amendment offered by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), seeking to eliminate subsidy payments to what he called "the nation's farmer fat cats."

He said the 14,000 "wealthiest farmers in the United States" received $1.2 billion in annual subsidies and had an average income of $762,000. "Let's begin with the first vote of the farm bill by lopping off $1.2 billion," he said.

Curtailing subsidy payments to the rich is an idea that has acquired considerable support among mavericks in both houses of Congress, but Reid found scant support during yesterday's debate.

Instead, Agriculture Committee members attacked his amendment, noting that subsidies were paid not on the basis of need but on the basis of production. Several senators also painted an apocalyptic vision of production run wild:

"If it {the Reid amendment} passed, 40 percent of all the agricultural production in American would immediately be disqualified," said Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.). "They will be free to grow anything they want. They will double and triple their production. We're going to see massive overproduction, massive increases in farm prices, massive declines in farm income and, ultimately, rural chaos."