HOUSE Republicans showed George Bush how they feel about his awful betrayal on taxes.

They took their ball and their bat, and they went home. So there.

In the most memorable formulation of their state of mind, Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma said. "We admire the president, we support the president, but we don't work for the president." Translation: "Read our lips, no new taxes."

Apparently this massive defection -- the vote in the Republican conference on the anti-tax resolution of Rep. Richard K. Arney of Texas was overwhelming -- was accepted philosophically. An amendment was requested by White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, ever the provincial politician. The former New Hampshire governor wanted his old neighbor from Maine -- Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell -- to be fingered in print.

Ready to oblige in the small things, the House Republicans included a designation of Mitchell as "a consistent roadblock to real spending cuts or growth incentives."

That, according to House Republicans, who seemed literally beside themselves, made their action "not a message to George Bush but a message to George Mitchell." Yes. Alas, this was not a catching idea, however better it may have made Sununu feel at the time.

Republicans tell themselves they have flung down the gauntlet to Democrats. Either the Democrats come up with some kind of taxes that are satisfactory to the Republicans or they can put the onus of passing tax legislation entirely on the Democrats and then face the electorate with what to them are clean hands. This is wonderfully defiant strategy, somewhat on the order of the 9-year-old threatening to leave home. Trouble is it could impede the budget settlement Bush must achieve. Having been warned that they are to be the fall guys, Democrats might drag their feet.

Republicans realize that taxes per se might have been manageable as an alternative to drastic cuts in social programs. But the issue has been poisoned by S&L considerations. Congressmen say voters are steaming over the fraud and greed that is going to eat up the new taxes. Taxes that are going to pay for the S&L bailout are toxic taxes, according to Republicans.

S& L questions leap out of every audience. Talk to Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn). His district is rural, but the connection is made.

"A farmer will say to me, 'Agriculture Department says one corner of my fields is wetlands, and if I plough it I'll get arrested -- and those bums who stole millions of dollars are walking around.' "

Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.), a Senate candidate, walked in a Fourth of July parade in Rockford. All along the line of march she was greeted by cries of "Jail the Crooks!"

The S&L issue is expected to dominate the fall election, and until Neil Bush came along nobody knew where the wrecking-ball of blame would land. Young Bush gave a name and a face to the mess, but he is a mere speck.

Republicans have taken some little comfort from the over-reaction of Democrats. House Speaker Tom Foley thundered at Ed Rollins, a campaign operative whose job it is to get Foley's goat. Other Democrats violated a cardinal rule: Never attack a politician through his children.

A better way to go -- forward -- was indicated by Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.), who introduced a bill calling for tough prosecutions of S&L offenders. He points out that of 21,000 complaints, only 839 cases have been brought.

Democrats generally are acting a little snake-bitten, although they are in better shape than they hve been for years. Nobody is going to accuse them of being soft on communism or "weak on defense. Things have slipped so far that Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), once the demi-god of defense, has turned tree-hugger; he wants the Defense Department to clean up the environment. Colleague Pat Moynihan calls him a green beret.

Democrats still have not got the knack of defining issues. Take the National Endowmen for the Arts, which Republicans are trying to turn into the Willie Horton of the '90s. Obviously patronage of the arts is a tricky business. The NEA hasn't had the luck of the Renaissance popes who sponsored DaVinci, and they've funded some silly "performance art" gigs, like a woman who dips herself with chocolate to show something about feminism. In an era when there's not enough money to go around, taxpayers are not amused.

Republicans led by Jesse Helms trumpet that it's public money paying for obscenity. Democrats keep saying it's a question of censorship. Actually it's a matter of common sense.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.