There is a strong and growing perception in official Washington that (one way or another) this Congress will raise excise taxes, especially gasoline and possibly estate taxes, in order to help reduce the federal budget deficit. The unanswered question is whether Ronald Reagan will swallow hard and agree.

As he did again just before going to the economic summit in Venice, Reagan periodically swears a blood oath that any tax increase will be signed over his dead body. But this shouldn't be taken literally: examined carefully, it can be seen that Reagan's ire is directed at higher tax rates, which means that he's against new taxes on personal or business income.

In fact, the administration has already opened the door to some revenue increases with its own budget proposal for excise taxes disguised as user fees, as well as payroll and other levies.

Says a high administration official privately: ''Anybody who says that we're not proposing to raise $3.7 billion in new taxes is smoking dope!''

Those excise taxes are exactly what the other ideologue in this drama, House Speaker James Wright (D-Tex.), opposes with almost a religious fervor. ''Jim regards excises as a way of taxing Joe Six-Pack,'' a colleague says.

Instead, Wright wants to hold back the additional rate reductions, passed last year, that would go into effect for those whose income exceeds $100,000. He refers to this as ''burden-sharing.'' That evokes a horrified reaction at the White House.

''The difficulty,'' says a Democrat, ''is that the speaker is very comfortable with the {tax-the-rich} issue. I'm not saying that he wants the issue, but he feels very comfortable with it.'' The conventional wisdom is that this poses an irreconcilable dilemma.

But, says a key Democratic politician on the Hill, there could nonetheless be a deal, unless the Republicans make the mistake of thinking they have the right political issue because the Democrats are calling for tax increases.

Conceding that he can't prove it, only that he just hears ''the noises coming in through the conch shell to my ear,'' this politician says: ''I think there's sort of a last-ditch possibility that something might be worked out this year. If you listen in the conch shell, you can just barely hear the sound of the sea, and I think {you hear} the possibility of some combination of taxes, Budget Act reforms, and allocations for additional funds for defense, over and above what the House has already voted.'' Lately, some Democrats have argued against any expansion of the defense budget. That could lessen chances for a satisfactory deal.

What the cooperative Democrats have in mind is a tax boost in the range of $18 billion to $20 billion, as part of a deficit-reduction package of $35 billion to $40 billion. They would allow the defense budget to keep even with inflation. Despite Wright's distaste for excise tax cuts as regressive -- that is, hitting hardest at lower-income groups -- other Democrats who normally would agree with the speaker concede three things:

First, Ronald Reagan isn't kidding when he says he won't agree to raise individual or corporate tax rates. Second, even if Reagan were willing, it wouldn't be politically wise from a Democatic perspective to raise tax rates so soon after cutting them last year. Third, because not enough additional loopholes can be closed, that leaves no other way to get a balanced, $40 billion deficit reduction without reliance on excise taxes.

A tax deal faces an uphill struggle: the word is passed by the two Bakers, Chief of Staff Howard and Treasury Secretary James, that they don't have any authority to talk about tax compromises -- Reagan is still dead set against tax increases.

The president's messengers recall that Reagan feels he was tricked once before. Back in 1982, he agreed to revenue increases during Jim Baker's era at the White House, on the understanding that he'd get budget cuts in a three-to-one ratio for each dollar of tax increase.

''This {notion} is a myth,'' snorts a Democrat, ''but it's put forward as a barrier to a new presidential agreement to raise revenues. 'You can't trust the Congress to do what it pledges to do on spending reductions,' they quote Reagan as saying. So they go from there to say they need some assurance of budget reform, to guarantee the spending reductions we're talking about.''

Therein, behind the scenes, may lie the potential for progress -- each side feeling the other out, nobody admitting the game is going on. Some things are clear right now: Reagan rules out a rate increase; the Democrats rule out a line-item veto or balanced-budget amendment.

''If those are preconditions,'' says a Democrat, ''forget the whole thing.'' But short of changing the inherent constitutional powers of Congress, Reagan can get some sort of assurance of budget ''reform'' if he holds his nose and buys more excise taxes.

Those who oppose excise taxes would also have to hold their noses. But so long as Reagan is president, it may be the only way to get the federal budget deficit down.