A leading civil rights advocate charged yesterday that President Bush's latest "alternative" to a new civil rights law was a "cynical" attempt to give him an excuse for vetoing the bill the House and Senate approved last week.

Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said the White House proposal, sent to Congress late Saturday, was "much worse than previous Bush administration proposals."

He said the plan would, for example, allow employers to bar minorities or women -- or Jews or Catholics -- from certain jobs they are clearly qualified to fill, on the basis of " 'customer relations' or other excuses irrelevant to job performance."

Neas said the measure would also make even minor differences in cost a complete defense for employers charged with discriminatory practices. He said women and religious minorities would also find it difficult or impossible to win damages in cases of intentional discrimination because the White House proposal would prohibit jury trials in such cases and cap damages at $150,000.

The administration contends the approved bill would encourage businesses to adopt hiring quotas.

White House counsel C. Boyden Gray said Saturday night that he expected civil rights groups "would call anything that we propose a step backwards."

The bill, passed by large but not veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, would nullify six recent Supreme Court decisions that made it more difficult for women and minorities to prove and win job discrimination suits.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said last evening he had not had a chance to study the White House proposal and said he hoped civil rights groups would refrain from "pouring the concrete" on it when there might still be a chance for compromise.

He said he was disappointed, however, when White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu told him yesterday that the administration wanted a separate bill embodying its proposals rather than a joint resolution of Congress amending the act. Specter said a joint resolution could be passed more quickly.

Democratic lawmakers said they saw no room for compromise. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said the Bush proposal would leave "wide gaps in our anti-discrimination laws" and fail to overturn key aspects of a 1989 Supreme Court decision Congress had targeted.

House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley" that an effort would be made to overturn an expected veto.