Both houses of Congress yesterday defeated farm bill amendments aimed at lowering price supports for sugar.

The defeats dealt a sharp blow to the effort by opponents to weaken some of the bill's more generous programs. They recouped slightly, however, when the Senate later passed an amendment to phase out price supports for honey.

The Senate and House are simultaneously debating their respective versions of the farm bill, which will regulate the nation's agriculture for the next five years.

The bill estimates that $53-54 billion in farm subsidies and other benefits will be disbursed during that time. Most members of Congress believe, however, that spending could be further slashed in the ongoing budget summit.

Reformers in both houses have concentrated on what they consider to be overly generous subsidies, especially to sugar. They have tried to reduce sugar price supports from 18 cents per pound to 16 cents.

The Senate amendment, sponsored by Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), was defeated by a surprisingly close vote of 54 to 44. A similar House measure introduced by Rep. Thomas Downey (D-N.Y.), was trounced 271 to 150.

Downey, Bradley and their supporters had denounced the sugar program for guaranteeing domestic producers an artificially high price, thus encouraging overproduction and limiting imports by foreign countries.

"Producers like the program because it's a better deal -- there's no downside," said Bradley. "If the sugar price goes up, the sugar farmer reaps the upside. If the price goes down, there's a floor.

"Sound familiar?" he asked. "I would say the sugar program is the S&L {the savings and loan scandal} of agriculture policy."

Rep. Jerry Huckaby (D-La.), the existing program's staunchest champion in the House, said that "overall I think Congress felt the sugar program was fair." His forecast was borne out to a limited extent in the Senate, when an amendment to phase out the honey price support was passed by voice vote after a motion to table the measure was defeated 52 to 46.

The honey program in the past five years has cost taxpayers between $66 million and $100 million in benefits to the nation's 22,000 beekeepers. The amendment would gradually reduce the support price over the first four years of the new farm bill and drop it altogether in the fifth.

"If they don't have a better shot than sugar, it's hard to understand," said Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture John Cambell, assigned by the Agriculture Department to follow the farm bill's progress. "The idea that rich people are getting payments from poor people is something that shouldn't be popular in the House of Representatives."

Still, amendments to exclude some large farmers from the programs are likely to find some opposition from environmentalists who note that farmers outside the programs are not bound by conservation regulations regarding wetlands and highly erodible lands.