What has happened in recent days to a proposal to more than double the minimum wage for certain workers in Montgomery County has shaped many other far-reaching ideas in the county: A titanic debate has produced a bill with little practical effect.

For years, Montgomery politicians bickered over reducing public school class size and finally did--by an average of less than one student. A sharply divided County Council imposed a tax on tobacco products this year that will raise all of $400,000--half of which will go to administering the program.

A proposal to cut the county income tax required back-room vote trading this year, just to save the average household $65 a year. And a strenuous debate this spring produced a blanket ban on smoking in restaurants--beginning in almost three years.

"That's the problem with Montgomery: We tend to focus on the symbolic instead of what will really address the problem," said freshman council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). "This county has a history over the past five years of thinking small."

Tonight, the county's debate over the minimum wage proposal, known as "living wage" legislation, will crest at a public hearing. But even ardent supporters acknowledge that the measure has dwindled to a goodwill gesture affecting fewer than 1,000 employees.

A plan that originally would have applied to almost all Montgomery businesses that receive government money now would affect only those with six-figure county contracts, provided it passes.

"A county with the tradition and resources of Montgomery County can go a lot farther than this," said Tom Hucker, executive director of Progressive Montgomery, who has organized living-wage campaigns around the country.

What often happens, officials say, is that grand proposals run into Montgomery's commerce-driven realities and cautious politicians, giving the county a reputation as a place that has a large social conscience but not much to show for it.

Although county politicians love to brag that it is a place of progressive policymaking, it is, in fact, split into distinct wings: the dreamers and the realists. Neither has the upper hand.

The dreamers have leaned further left and consider social policy more important than economic expansion, a view embodied by former county executive Neal Potter (D), who worried in the early 1990s that Montgomery had too many jobs. The realists, personified by current County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), have viewed economic growth as the engine for social change and been more willing to salvage legislation with compromise.

The living-wage bill was subject to the push-and-pull of the wings even before its introduction last month. As originally envisioned, it would require almost all companies receiving county contracts or economic aid to pay employees at least $10.44 an hour, more than twice the minimum wage.

It was among the broadest living-wage proposals floated during a national campaign that has led to the passage of such bills in more than 30 large jurisdictions in recent years.

But developers involved in the remaking of Silver Spring said the bill jeopardized their ability to lease the new town center, by making it more costly for businesses to hire workers. As an alternative, Duncan proposed an $11 million package of tax credits and subsidies that would affect 13,600 families and make Montgomery the first county in the nation with an earned income tax credit.

Then, this week, council President Isiah Leggett (D-At Large) proposed another solution, a reworked living-wage bill. Instead of giving an estimated 6,000 workers a pay raise, Leggett's bill would affect fewer than 1,000 jobs--leaving more than 20,000 county families with incomes low enough to qualify them for food stamps.

"Certainly this is not a panacea, but it's a step," said Leggett, who places himself squarely in Montgomery's "realist" wing. "I would choose a smaller idea to actually get it tested than create the kinds of divisions that may never produce a bill."

Living-wage activists say they have won no matter how many workers receive raises, because suddenly the working poor are no longer anonymous. What helps their cause is that Montgomery politicians are facing a broader question at the end of a turbulent financial decade: how to use a moment of wealth to accommodate the profound demographic change reshaping county neighborhoods, classrooms and economics.

Living-wage advocates say that even one fewer member of the working poor represents victory, citing the parable of the boy on the beach throwing a washed-up starfish back into the ocean. His parents tell him his efforts, while noble, make no difference.

"It made a difference to him," he responds, tossing one back.

"The council president's proposal is still a meaningful bill and would establish the principle of the living wage in county law for the first time," said council member Philip Andrews (D-Rockville). "Those are both important."

CAPTION: Symbolic isn't enough, says council member Steven A. Silverman.