President Bush vetoed legislation yesterday that would require employers to provide unpaid leave for workers to care for an ill family member or a newborn child and charged that the bill's "rigid, federally imposed-requirements" would hurt U.S. economic competitiveness and deprive employees of the right to decide which benefits they want.

In his veto message, Bush declared that his administration is "strongly committed" to the need for work and family responsibilities to be complementary, but said policies to encourage this should be "crafted at the workplace by employers and employees, not through government. . . . "

Under the legislation, firms with at least 50 employees must offer up to 12 weeks a year for workers to care for a newborn child or seriously ill parent, child or themselves. During the leave, employees would receive health benefits and job protection.

Lawmakers in both parties were quick to criticize the veto. Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), called it "a blow to America's working families. . . . This veto is bad policy and bad politics."

"No working mother should be forced to choose between the child she loves and the job she needs," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "The president might as well try to veto motherhood."

"Protecting jobs for those who must take leave to care for their families in times of crisis or birth is not unreasonable," said Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine). "It is kinder and gentler," he said, recalling a phrase from Bush's inaugural address.

"The president should be ashamed of vetoing one of the most important initiatives that the Congress put together this year to reinforce and strengthen family values," House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said.

Proponents of the legislation promised a fight to overturn the veto, but White House officials yesterday said they expect to win a veto fight handily. The House passed the measure by a vote of 237 to 187, less than the two-thirds margin necessary to override a veto. The Senate approved the bill by voice vote.

"We think we have the votes," deputy White House press secretary Alixe Glen said. Congress has failed to override any of Bush's 12 previous vetoes.

In his veto message, Bush emphasized that he favors employers voluntarily providing workers with time off to care for ailing children or parents, but is opposed to laws that would force business to provide leave time. During his 1988 campaign, Bush did not make such a distinction and never suggested he opposed mandatory requirements when he said such time off should be available. Critics have charged that his opposition to the legislation is a direct violation of his campaign pledge.

The two-page veto message argued that American firms, facing fierce worldwide competition, must have "flexibility" both to be competitive and meet the needs of their employees. "We must ensure that federal policies do not stifle the creation of new jobs, nor result in the elimination of existing jobs," the statement said. Creating jobs, it added, is "the most fundamental need of working families."

The statement suggested that a major reason fewer new jobs have been created in Europe in the past decade than in the United States is the more extensive use of mandated benefits in Europe.

Administration officials, under heavy pressure by business to fight the family leave legislation, have said business firms do not so much vehemently oppose this particular benefit as they fear that enactment of the family leave bill would be a first step toward a series of new mandated benefits.

Besides the overall economic argument, the president argued in the veto message that mandating one benefit over another is unfair to employees and interferes with labor negotiations. "By substituting a one-size-fits-all government mandate for innovative individual agreements, this bill ignores the differing family needs and preferences of employees and unduly limits the role of labor-management negotiations," the statement said.

Staff writer John E. Yang contributed to this report.