WASHINGTON - The Senate on Thursday voted 95-5 to pass a $6 billion crop insurance reform package, clearing the way for joint negotiations with the House.

Improving the nation's crop-insurance program has drawn strong support from farm groups as well as bankers. The House last year passed a similar measure, which like the Senate version would run through 2004. The next step for both houses of Congress will be to resolve differences between the two bills.

Bankers say the structure of the current government-subsidized program discourages farmers from buying enough coverage to protect their incomes, leaving them potentially unable to repay loans after a disaster.

Bank groups have also suggested that an improved crop insurance program would reduce pressure on Congress to pass multibillion-dollar disaster aid packages for farmers as it has in the past two years.

If farmers are buying insurance, the logic goes, the government will not need to provide as much emergency relief.

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