THE MINIMUM wage should be increased, and the increase should not become a political football. Unfortunately, there is more than a little risk that it will become a football in the remaining days of the session.

The wage, now $5.15 an hour, was last increased in 1997. The president has proposed taking it up another dollar an hour: 50 cents next Jan. 1 and 50 cents a year thereafter. Republicans and some Democrats would spread the increase over an additional year. That's something reasonable people can disagree about. The wage ought not be allowed to lose ground to inflation, and perhaps in real terms ought to be set higher than it has been in recent years, though the government powerfully supplements it with the earned-income tax credit, food stamps and other benefits.

The wage itself, however, has become almost a secondary issue. Those sponsoring a slower increase also want to use the bill as a vehicle for some of the tax cuts the president vetoed earlier in the year. Ostensibly, these are to make whole the smaller businesses that would have to pay the higher wage. But the data suggest that little of the benefit would go to such employers. These are costly cuts in the estate tax, tax treatment of pension set-asides, etc., that would mainly go to people of very high income. No provision is made to offset the costs, which tend to be understated in that early on they would be relatively low and only later begin to rise.

The president has rightly threatened, mainly on these fiscal grounds, to veto the bill. It may well be that the bill will have to include some tax relief to pass, but the relief should be targeted and paid for. The gatekeepers seek too heavy a toll. The price of a bill to help the working poor ought not be an indiscriminate tax cut for those at the very top of the economic mountain.