In the unlikely event that Congress gives the White House control of a government-wide buyout program, a relatively small number of federal workers--perhaps only a few thousand employees who work in agencies where buyouts are now banned--would benefit. The expanded buyouts are an important part of the administration's effort to hire and promote Hispanics and women.

Now only 10 federal departments and agencies have the authority to offer buyouts. No new buyout programs can begin without congressional approval. And time is running out for it to consider anything as controversial as a government-wide buyout program starting next month.

Congressional sources say the projected cost of government-wide buyouts would be $113 million over the next few years. Assuming each buyout was worth the maximum $25,000, that works out to about 4,500 buyouts. But experts familiar with the program say that includes other cost factors and that it would be misleading to guess at the number of new buyouts the program would produce.

Whatever the number of federal workers who would be offered buyouts through an expanded program, it would not include workers in agencies with buyout programs that are already approved by Congress. Technically the buyouts are known as voluntary separation incentive payments, or VSIPs.

Chances of expanded buyouts being approved this year are remote because Congress is on a tight schedule and plans to adjourn in early October.

Congress approved a government-wide buyout program several years ago. But since it expired there has been no interest on Capitol Hill in reviving it. Instead Congress has adopted an agency-by-agency, as-needed buyout approval process.

All of the above means there is little time for Congress--which is preoccupied with next year's elections and the new FBI-Waco controversy--to consider government-wide buyouts through the normal legislative process. The only way it could happen this year is if the buyout plan was slipped into an appropriations bill and approved without going through the normal committee and floor vote process.

Currently only 10 federal departments and agencies have the authority to offer buyouts. They are the Defense, Energy and Agriculture departments, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, CIA, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Architect of the Capitol, Government Printing Office, Bonneville Power Administration and IRS.

Under the expanded buyout proposal, White House-approved agencies could offer workers up to $25,000 to leave. After deductions workers would take home $16,000 to $17,000. Agencies would lose a permanent slot for each buyout granted. And workers rehired by government within five years would have to repay the entire amount of the buyout--not just the amount they netted. Buyouts wouldn't have any impact--positive or negative--on other pension benefits earned by employees.

Under the Clinton administration, more than 130,000 federal workers (mostly retirement-age males in civilian Defense jobs) got buyouts averaging just over $24,000.

The Clinton administration plans to continue cutting federal jobs--and payroll costs. It has already eliminated 300,000 positions. To reduce the number of federal jobs, the White House wants to contract out more services to the private sector, and to utilize more part-time and temporary workers.

At the same time, the White House has directed downsizing agencies to increase the percentage of Hispanics and women they have, and to improve promotion opportunities for them. The Office of Personnel Management says the number of Hispanic executives has doubled in the past six years and increased 30 percent last year. While that is a big percentage increase, the starting base was very low. OPM data indicates that only one federal department--Justice--is "fully represented" in the percentage of Hispanic employees. All other agencies, OPM says, are "underrepresented" compared with the percentage of Hispanics in the national work force.

To maintain its diversity goals, and yet continue to downsize government, buyouts are a must. Without them--and barring a sudden rush of normal retirements--agencies would have to resort to layoffs, which hit women and minorities--who lack seniority and veterans preference--first.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com