Congress Passes 2 LandmarkFiscal Bills c

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have passed separate versions of landmark legislation intended to balance the federal budget in five years, restore welfare benefits to some 300,000 legal immigrants, and impose significant savings to ensure the future solvency of Medicare.

Passage of the companion spending bills on Thursday marks a major, bipartisan triumph for U.S. President Bill Clinton and the Republican leaders of Congress, who agreed on a balanced budget as this year's top policy goal.

Support was strong in both chambers, with the Senate voting 73-27 for its version of the legislation, and the House adopting its version by a 270-162 vote.

Both houses of Congress now turn their attention to legislation calling for some $85 billion in tax cuts over five years.

Wednesday's votes in the Senate and House will increase "credibility and confidence'' that Congress is serious about balancing the budget by the year 2002, said House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich.

Both the Senate and House spending bills represent a reprieve for many low-income legal immigrants who had faced a potential cut-off of federal income support and medical benefits under last year's welfare reform law.

An estimated 500,000 immigrants had been expected to lose Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid benefits this fall under the welfare law. The Senate and House bills would ensure that about 300,000 of them would retain those benefits, according to congressional officials.

Under an amendment approved by the Senate on a voice vote, all legal immigrants who already are receiving benefits would be allowed to keep them, and those who become injured in the future would still be eligible for disability coverage.

The House bill provides less protection for poor immigrants who become disabled in the future.

The conflicting approaches taken by the two houses will be a key area of conflict when representatives of the Senate and House meet in conference later this month to forge a single piece of legislation.

The Supreme Court gave Clinton the authority Thursday to veto specific items in spending bills -- unprecedented power sought by nearly every U.S. president over the past century, The Associated Press reported.

The court cleared the way for Clinton to become the first U.S. president authorized to use the so-called line-item veto by ruling that members of Congress lacked the proper legal standing to challenge the federal law that gave him such power.