With the federal minimum wage now 28 percent lower, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was fifty years ago, Senate Republicans are nonetheless threatening to filibuster its increase. This leaves the Democrats with a choice, which will set the tone for future legislation. They can cave to Republican demands to add questionable business tax breaks, a response Montana Democrat Max Baucus embraces. Or they can use their time, while the debate goes on, to highlight the fundamental issues at stake, hammering the Republicans with their opposition to this most modest step toward helping low-income  working Americans. Ted Kennedy did this when he challenged the $200 billion of amendments offered in an attempt to derail the bill, and then asked "When does the greed stop?” 

That’s a great response, echoing Jim Webb’s powerful rejoinder to Bush’s State of the Union Address. But imagine if debate did grind on for weeks, and the Republicans had to justify again and again why they’ve blocked such an increase for ten years. The Republicans can cite discredited assumptions about how a reasonable minimum wage hurts small businesses. (Between 1998 and 2001, the number of small business establishments actually grew twice as fast in states with higher minimum wages than lower ones, and total employment grew faster as well.). They can endlessly quote Rush Limbaugh or even read the phone book. But the voters have already heard and rejected all these arguments in the recent minimum wage referendums in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio.  So the Democrats will only gain if they follow Kennedy’s lead and are blunt about how much Republican policies have helped open up economic divides until our country is beginning to resemble a third-world lootacracy. The longer the Republicans obstruct the passage of this bill, the more political support the Democrats are likely to gain. And that’s going to give them leverage for future bills and future electoral campaigns.

That doesn’t mean the Democrats should be unreasonable. If there are amendments that would genuinely make the minimum wage increase a better bill, it makes sense to include them, or consider them in future legislation, as soon as the basic wage increase is passed. There’s nothing wrong, for instance, with the proposal to extend tax credit for employers who hire low-income or disadvantaged workers. But businesses have gotten $300 billion in tax breaks since the last federal minimum wage raise. A bill that simply raises the minimum wage bill should stand on its own, as it has in states across the country that have set their own higher standards.  The Democrats shouldn’t shy away from a fight where what they’re standing for is both morally right and has the backing of most Americans. 

As was true when the Republicans controlled the House and Senate, the more the Democrats back down, the more the Republicans will demand. So if the Democrats cave and accept regressive components to the minimum wage bill, they’ll likely be forced to do the same on all their future bills, like the ones the House just passed to cut student loan rates, negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare recipients, increase stem cell research, and support renewable energy by cutting oil company subsidies.

The filibuster allows a minority of Senators to block specific legislation they oppose. But it also helps shape a larger political context, a fight for public support. The Democrats lost moral credibility when enough caved to pass Republican measures like Bush’s regressive tax changes and draconian bankruptcy bill. They would have gained by filibustering them and making clear the winners and losers, and the United States would have gained as well. They would have similarly gained by going to the mat to block Samuel Alito, or to stop the Iraq war before it happened. The roles are now reversed as the Republicans use the filibuster to block legislation that begins to reverse some of the ground lost during the past half dozen years. Certainly the perfect can become the enemy of the good. Successful politics often requires compromise. To the degree that Republicans raise legitimate concerns, Democrats can and should incorporate them when drafting their bills.  But caving automatically to Republican obstructionism means letting them continue to damage a common future. It squanders a moment where we could begin to hold them accountable for their actions. Now that the Democrats have the chance to set the agenda, they need to find the courage to pursue it without being intimidated.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See   To receive his monthly articles email with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles