Last week, the Senate by a similar vote also defeated an amendment to phase out the program.
The sugar vote was one of the few remaining contentious issues as the Senate worked through some 73 amendments to the 1,000-page measure that establishes safety nets for farmers, authorizes conservation programs, and funds the food stamp program.
A final vote is expected Thursday morning, sending the bill to the House, where it could face an uphill battle. Though the Senate bill cuts $23 billion from current spending levels over the next decade, the Republican-led House is likely to seek deeper cuts, particularly to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, food stamps, which costs $80 billion a year and makes up 80 percent of farm bill spending. The current farm act expires at the end of September.
The farm bill makes some substantial changes in policy, including eliminating direct payments to farmers even when they don't plant crops, and consolidating conservation programs, but it doesn't touch the federal sugar program, which dates to 1930s legislation to protect domestic sugar growers and refiners.
The program is opposed by consumer groups and food and beverage associations that use sugar, which claim it drives up prices and forces U.S. confectioners to relocate overseas.
"This is the last opportunity for a bipartisan amendment to reform sugar subsidies that are costing consumers $3.5 billion a year and losing 20,000 jobs a year in this country," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), who sponsored the amendment with Sen. Patrick Toomey (R., Pa.)
Supporters of the program, including senators from Northern and Western sugar beet states and Southern sugarcane states, countered that it does not cost taxpayers anything and that consumer sugar prices remain lower than those in other developed countries. Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Debbie Stabenow, (D., Mich.), said current sugar policy supports 142,000 U.S. jobs. "If we're importing cheap sugar at a point where we undermine American jobs, what have we gained?"
Still to be dealt with are amendments dealing with crop insurance - farmers currently are compensated for an average 62 percent of their crop insurance premiums, and some senators are pushing for limits on those subsidies - and with Environmental Protection Agency aerial surveillance of farm operations.