The 700,000 government workers who earlier this year were tantalized by the prospect of being able to retire much sooner than they planned have been put on indefinite hold. Unions are suspicious of the early-out proposal, and the threat of big government layoffs has been eased -- at least temporarily -- by the Supreme Court decision on the deficit reduction act.

Sens. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) had proposed a special early-out period (to run from July 1 to Dec. 31) when normal age and service requirements would be suspended. Under current law, the earliest most workers can retire is at age 55 with 30 years' service.

Anticipating layoffs triggered by the deficit reduction act, Roth and Stevens suggested the early out as a way of reducing jobs without firing younger, less senior, employes. Their plan would permit retirement on immediate pensions at any age after 25 years of service; at age 50 after 20 years; at age 55 after 15 years or at age 57 after five years of service. Such a change would make early retirement a possibility for nearly a quarter of the federal work force.

But federal and postal unions generally opposed the Roth-Stevens bill because it was linked to a five-year hiring freeze for most agencies. The White House also is concerned about hiring problems.

The recent Supreme Court rejection of portions of the deficit reduction act also casts a doubt on budget-cutting plans. If the five-year series of cuts the act proposed doesn't take place, or is modified, the layoffs that prompted the Roth- Stevens bill won't happen, and that removes the reason for the bill.

Earlier this month Rep. Helen Bentley (R-Md.) introduced a similar early-out bill in the House. But no House action is planned on the proposal, and the Senate, after one hearing, is waiting to see if a compromise -- meeting union and White House objections -- to the Roth-Stevens bill can be worked out and, more importantly, if there is any need for the early retirement bill.