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STOP READING BUSH'S LIPS, START READING TAXPAYERS'

Read his lips! Now read them again! The man who turned "no tax increase" into a household phrase as well as into a campaign pledge that gave him the key to the White House seems to have switched slogans.

Instead, he is now quoted as saying that any new package of proposals for reducing the federal deficit must include "tax revenue increases."Doesn't have nearly the rhetorical punch of the old slogan, does it? But the new phrase still touches so many nerves among taxpayers that it's bound to make political life much more risky for President Bush and his fellow Republicans.

If the taxpayers are wise, they will recognize this switch by the White House for what it really is - not the sell-out that many will accuse it of being but a long-overdue recognition of economic reality.

A key part of that reality is that higher interest rates, weakness in the economy, and the cost of shoring up the ailing savings and loan industry have pushed the deficit sharply higher.

No wonder that most economists have long been insisting that genuine deficit reduction won't be possible without some combination of higher taxes and spending cuts.

Likewise, it's hard to blame congressional Democrats for declining to take sole responsibility for higher taxes.

Now that President Bush has made it clear he will share that responsibility, exactly what taxes are to be raised and by how much?

Typically, Washington isn't saying. But it should be reasonably clear that higher levies on liquor and tobacco are in order in view of the major public health problems caused by those products. So are higher taxes on gasoline in view of the massive deterioration of this nation's roads and bridges.

But gas taxes should not be increased until after Washington starts spending the $22 billion surplus in the trust funds for highways and airports instead of just sitting on them in an effort to make the federal deficit look smaller than it really is.

Another question raised by President Bush's new stance on taxes is exactly what programs will be cut as part of the effort to eventually balance the budget?

Again, Washington isn't saying yet. But there are limits to how much more the defense budget can be trimmed without cutting not just fat but muscle. Likewise, with federal pensions, Social Security and Medicare making up half of the federal budget, it should be no secret that surgery must be performed on some of these so-called "entitlement programs."

Anyway, now that President Bush has changed his tune on taxes, the lips that need to be read are not those of any official in Washington but of taxpayers across the country. Are they willing to speak up for fiscal responsibility despite its painful price?