The House yesterday approved a major immigration bill after stripping it of provisions aimed at reducing the influx of legal immigrants.

The final vote of 333 to 87 came after the Clinton administration threw its support behind a move to limit the legislation essentially to a crackdown on illegal immigration. The bill beefs up the Border Patrol, streamlines deportation procedures, toughens penalties for alien smuggling and document fraud, and makes it more difficult for illegal aliens to receive education and welfare benefits.

Earlier, a vote on a key amendment, which passed 238 to 183, deleted sections that would have reduced levels of legal immigration from about 775,000 a year at present to about 700,000 annually for the first five years and fewer than 600,000 a year after that.

The bill, originally conceived as the most ambitious effort to overhaul U.S. immigration laws in 30 years, addressed an issue that has sparked hot political rhetoric on the campaign trail in this election season and that promises to figure in both parties' attempts to woo electoral vote-rich California.

Deleting the provisions on legal immigration removed the most contentious parts of the bill and brought it more closely into line with a Senate version now before its Judiciary Committee.

By shifting their focus to a crackdown on illegal aliens, the representatives seized an issue on which there is broad agreement but did little to lower the overall influx of immigrants, most of whom come to the United States legally.

Voting on other amendments, the House rejected efforts by powerful agricultural interests to insert a new guest-worker program into the bill. One defeated amendment would have allowed admission of up to 250,000 agricultural guest workers a year, and another would have let in up to 100,000 a year.

The Clinton administration's support for the amendment to strip the bill surprised its chief sponsors, Texans Lamar S. Smith (R) and John Bryant (D). Clinton had previously expressed support for the recommendations of the bipartisan Commission on Immigration Reform, which had called for significant cuts in legal immigration and upon which portions of the House bill were based.

"We were able to keep our promise and produce a bipartisan bill that is truly in the national interest," Smith said. He said that losing the legal reform provisions was "clearly a disappointment" but that the issue is unlikely to die. "I don't think the administration appreciates the strong feelings {of Americans} on immigration reform," he said.

The vote was immediately hailed by members of an eclectic pro-immigration coalition that united business, labor, ethnic, religious, liberal, conservative and libertarian groups. It was bitterly denounced by advocates of lower immigration levels, who charged that the bill had been gutted by special interests.

Supporters of the amendment -- sponsored by an unlikely alliance of two conservative Republican freshmen and a veteran liberal Democrat -- portrayed the bill's effort to reduce legal immigration as unfair.

Rep. Dick Chrysler (R-Mich.), one of the sponsors, said the bill was "closing the door on families of U.S. citizens." He added, "I cannot justify voting for the drastic cuts in legal immigration because of problems in illegal immigration."

"It is fundamentally wrong to take the justifiable anger about our failure to deal with the issue of illegal immigration and piggyback on top of that anger a drastic . . . cut in permanent legal immigration, a cause and a force that has been good for this country," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), another sponsor.

"We are a nation of immigrants," said Rep. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), the third co-sponsor. "Congress should preserve that proud tradition, not threaten it."

Opponents argued that the two issues of legal and illegal immigration could not be separated.

"A fundamental problem in our current immigration system is that more than 80 percent of all legal immigrants are now admitted without reference to their skills and education" and 37 percent lack even a high school education, Smith said. "This surplus of unskilled immigrants hurts those Americans who can least afford it, those at the lowest end of the economic ladder."

"You've got to deal with legal immigration -- that's where the numbers are," said Bryant. Illegal immigration is estimated to add 300,000 to 400,000 people to the U.S. population each year, while the number of legal immigrants and refugees has exceeded 1 million in some recent years.

Bryant on Wednesday expressed "great disappointment and contempt" for the White House's surprise decision to support stripping the legal immigration provisions from the bill, calling it a "politically cowardly" reversal of a year-old position. "It is a simple case of caving in to political pressure," he said.

Administration officials said they still support modest reform of legal immigration and hope to include measures to protect U.S. workers in any new bill on that issue. CAPTION: IMMIGRATION BILL HIGHLIGHTS Key provisions of the House immigration bill: Leaves legal immigration as is under current law, following the passage of an amendment to strip the bill's provisions on legal immigration. Current annual level of about 775,000 includes 480,000 family-sponsored immigrants, 140,000 employer-sponsored immigrants, 55,000 diversity-lottery admissions and 100,000 refugees. Reinforces the Border Patrol with 1,000 new agents a year for five years to crack down on illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border. Mandates construction of 14 miles of new triple fencing on the border south of San Diego. Expands wiretap authority and strengthens criminal penalties to combat alien smuggling and document fraud. Streamlines deportation proceedings and creates new grounds of inadmissibility, with new penalties for remaining in the United States illegally. Allows the deportation of accused terrorists on the basis of secret evidence and makes membership in a terrorist organization grounds for barring entry into the United States. Allows the summary exclusion of illegal aliens seeking political asylum if they fail to pass an interview at the port of entry, and gives those already in the country 180 days from their date of entry to apply for asylum. Establishes a voluntary three-year pilot program in five states under which employers could verify the employment eligibility of job-seekers by calling in their Social Security numbers to a government database. Gives states the option of denying free public education to illegal alien children. Blocks illegal immigrant parents from receiving federal welfare benefits on behalf of their U.S.-born children. CAPTION: REP. JOHN BRYANT