President Reagan's veto of a bill he supported that would have granted health insurance refunds to 2 million federal workers and retirees is a classic lesson in Washington legislative politics and timing. It is a lesson in the realities of hardball politics, not the how-a-bill-becomes-law stuff you get in ninth grade civics.

The veto means that, for now at least, there will be no refunds -- worth $20 to $400 each -- for 300,000 people in the Washington and Baltimore areas who have expected them for eight months.

You can say the president is a mean-spirited man who went back on his word.

Or you can see him as the potential buyer of a new car he wants, who refuses to buy when the dealer wheels it out with an expensive accessory the customer said he did not want and cannot afford.

This is a blow-by-blow account of the rise and fall of the health premium refund bill:

*Last spring, Blue Cross-Blue Shield proposed to refund more than $700 million to the government and to 1985 policyholders. It said its costs were down because employes were not claiming as much as in previous years and were paying more of their medical bills.

*President Reagan and the Office of Personnel Management approved the refunds.

*The Justice Department said that refunds were permissible for active duty federal workers but that Congress would have to approve special legislation before retirees could get them.

*Blue Cross-Blue Shield joined six other insurance plans offering refunds and said it would wait until legislation was approved giving refunds to retirees as well.

*The House approved its version of the refund bill, with language that would raise the government share of contributions to health insurance premiums. The administration opposed that last provision.

*The Senate approved its version of the refund bill without the House language.

*The bill went back to the House, which added some features the Senate wanted and included the language raising the government share of health premiums.

*The Senate approved the compromise bill Dec. 12.

*Normally the bill would have been sent to the president within a few days. Once it reached the White House, he would have 10 working days to sign or veto it.

*For some reason the bill was delayed on Capitol Hill. It was not sent to the White House until the second week in January, nearly a month after it had passed. A lot can happen in a month, particularly when Congress is rushing to adjourn.

*By then the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction act was in place, requiring federal agencies to cut their spending. Budget cutting was no longer talk; it was the law of the land.

*Last Monday, officials at the Office of Management and Budget flagged the refund bill, saying that the House-added provision would be too costly.

*The Office of Personnel Management recommended that the bill be signed.

*On Friday afternoon, the president vetoed the bill. He said he still favors refunds, but he objected to the other provision of the bill that would raise government (taxpayer) insurance costs.

The refunds aren't dead. But they aren't very healthy either. Congress can try to override the veto, which is unlikely, or it can try again with legislation dealing strictly with the refunds.

The refund story -- which all of us had hoped would finish up weeks ago -- will be around for months to come.

The checks are not in the mail.