OPPONENTS ARE trying to exact too high a price for a minimum wage increase. Republican leaders determined earlier in the year that they lacked the votes to block an increase. They decided instead to try to trade it for a tax cut, as has happened in the past. The notion was that the cut would compensate small businessmen for the cost of the higher wages.

But the tax cuts now in contemplation have ballooned far beyond that narrow purpose. A new estimate says the tax cuts in the leading House bill would cost almost $100 billion over 10 years. Because the bill is backloaded, even that understates the full effect; by the 10th year the estimated annual cost of what is being presented as little more than incidental tax reduction would be about $15 billion. The provisions are such that almost three-fourths of the benefit would go to the highest-income one percent of the population and almost 90 percent to the highest-income 5 percent.

Nor do the data suggest that most of this would go to owners of small businesses, the supposed beneficiaries. More than half the cost of the bill would come from cuts in the estate tax, which already applies to only the wealthiest 2 percent of the population. A recent study found that individually or family owned small businesses made up less than 3 percent of the assets subject to the estate tax. Most of the people whom these estate tax cuts would help aren't paying the minimum wage.

The bill would also significantly ease tax law regarding pensions, so that individuals could make much larger tax-free contributions to pension funds as well as withdraw larger amounts per year on retirement. Almost all the benefit of raising these ceilings would go to higher-income people, because they are the only ones who bump up against them now.

The small-business, minimum-wage connection again is tenuous, in that most small employers don't have pension plans; most of the people with private pension coverage in the country work for large corporations. Some provisions in the bill could even lead small- business owners to reduce pension coverage; they'd no longer have to contribute as much for their employees in order to be eligible to set aside significant sums for themselves.

There ought to be an increase in the minimum wage this year, if only to restore the purchasing power it has lost since the last increase in 1997. The politics may be such that there is no way to pass an increase without some kind of offset. But the offset ought not be exorbitant. The president, who rightly supports an increase, needs to make clear that there is a limit to the price he'll countenance. It would be more than ironic if a bill to help the lowest-paid people in the society became a buffet for the better-off.