EDGARTOWN, Mass. - President Clinton vetoed a Republican-sponsored tax cut for married couples Saturday, describing it as ''the first installment of a fiscally reckless tax strategy'' that would erase projected budget surpluses.
He said the tax break package amounted to little more than a gift to the wealthy.
The legislation passed both the House and the Senate by less than the two-thirds majorities needed to override Clinton's veto, but a House leader said an override attempt will be a top priority after Congress' current summer recess.
GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush, on a campaign train tour through the Midwest with running mate Dick Cheney, criticized the veto. The legislation, Bush said at a rally in Pontiac, Mich., ''was the right thing to do. What kind of tax code is it that penalize marriage. It's a bad tax code.''
Clinton vetoed the $292 billion, 10-year tax cut before his morning round of golf on the Massachusetts resort island of Martha's Vineyard, where the first family is vacationing this weekend.
He returned the legislation to Congress with a letter in which he said the tax plan was regressive.
''It provides little relief to families that need it most, while devoting a large fraction of its benefits to families with higher incomes,'' Clinton's letter said.
The veto, which Clinton announced on his weekly radio address, is the opening salvo of a complicated political skirmish as the November presidential election looms. Clinton and the Democrats are trying to offer their own tax cut package while arguing that Republicans are giving away the store.
Many Republicans believe Clinton's veto gives them a winning political issue by demonstrating that with a GOP-controlled Congress, a Democratic president is the only obstacle to sweeping tax reductions.
The bill's Senate author, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, gave an indication of what is to come with a statement that said Clinton chose a quiet Saturday morning for the veto because he thought American's wouldn't notice.
''But working families are paying attention, and they know the president has run out of excuses,'' Hutchison said. ''The Republicans have just nominated a presidential candidate who will give marriage penalty relief to working families.''
Rep. Tom DeLay, also of Texas, the third-ranking Republican in the House, has said that upon its return from recess next month, the House will make trying to override the veto its ''first order of business.''
The White House claims that tax cuts supported by GOP leaders in Congress, when combined with the tax cut package proposed by Bush, would cost more than $2 trillion over 10 years. Bush said Saturday he would have signed the bill.
Estimates of the non-Social Security budget surplus range from $1.5 trillion to $2.2 trillion over 10 years.
Clinton accuses Republicans of using his success to justify election-year tax break gimmicks they know he will veto.
''I support tax cuts, but tax cuts we can afford. We can't afford a $2 trillion U-turn on the path of fiscal discipline and economic progress,'' Clinton said in the radio address.
The marriage penalty legislation and other tax cuts approved by the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee this year ''provide about as much benefit to the top 1 percent of Americans as to the bottom 80 percent combined,'' Clinton's letter to Congress said.
The wealthiest 1 percent of families get an average tax break of more than $16,000, while a middle-class family gets an average break of $220, Clinton claimed.
Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, turned tables on Clinton and accused him of playing election-year politics.
''Married couples are the latest victims of vetoes, and it's becoming sadly clear that President Clinton cares more about the fortune of political pals on election day than working families on tax day,'' Archer said Saturday.
The marriage penalty is the popular name for extra taxes 25 million two-wage-earner couples must pay because of a structural quirk in the tax code.
The bill Clinton vetoed also would have cut taxes for about as many additional couples who now enjoy a marriage ''bonus'' by paying less than they would if they were single. This largely affects families in which one spouse earns most of the family income.
Most of the bill's tax reductions would have come from enlarging the bottom 15 percent tax bracket and increasing the standard tax deduction for couples filing jointly.
Clinton's veto, his 32nd, is no surprise. He promised to kill the measure even before it passed last month.