The House yesterday upheld President Bush's veto of legislation that would have given about half of U.S. workers the right to take up to 12 weeks of annual unpaid leave to care for newborn children and seriously ill family members.

The vote to override Bush's veto of the family and medical leave act was 232 to 195, 53 votes short of the two-thirds needed to enact the measure over the president's objection. The legislation was supported by five fewer lawmakers than when it first passed the House on May 10. The Senate had approved the bill by voice vote June 14.

Supporters of the legislation, who this year capped a five-year effort to get Congress to approve a benefit enjoyed by most workers in other industrialized nations, expressed disappointment, but vowed to continue their effort.

"George Bush is going to have a family leave bill on his desk every year he's in office," promised Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who criticized Bush for giving "lip service" to family values.

"Today's vote is just another milestone on the trek to enact family and medical leave. It is not the end of the journey," added Judith Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund and chairman of a coalition that backed the legislation. "The bottom line is that we have no intention of easing our pressure on Congress and the president to enact a family and medical leave act."

Bush's veto was the 13th of his presidency, and none of the vetoes have been overridden by the Democratic-controlled Congress.

During his 1988 presidential campaign, Bush endorsed -- at least in concept -- the right of mothers to enjoy leave time to be with their newborn children. He said he vetoed the legislation because it required all businesses with 50 or more employees to provide the benefit. The president said such issues should be resolved through collective bargaining agreements.

Democrats who had watered down the legislation to meet some of the concerns of business interests mocked that objection yesterday. "The president says make it voluntary," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). "It is voluntary and it isn't working."

But opponents said requiring businesses to provide leave time would end up hurting workers in the long run because the cost, estimated at $5.30 per worker per year, would take away from other benefits. Rep. Steve Bartlett (R-Tex.), for instance, said the measure would be a "cruel hoax," denying people "other benefits that are not on the political agenda."

Congressional supporters of family and medical leave believe Bush and lawmakers who backed him have underestimated the political power of the issue, which is supported by a large majority of voters, according to many opinion surveys.

"If the American people had been able to vote today we would have overridden the veto," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.). "The special interests won and families lost."

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) was among those who predicted the family and medical leave issue will not go away. "We're going to have this kind of legislation enacted, if not this year in this session, next year or the year after," Foley said. "It's inevitable, in my judgment."

All Maryland representatives supported the override effort except Beverly B. Byron (D) and Helen Delich Bentley (R). All Virginia representatives opposed the override effort except Rick Boucher (D).