WASHINGTON -- Coming live to your television tonight, competing with "Beverly Hills 90210", "Unsolved Mysteries," and "Home Improvement," will be -- the Great Debate from the House of Representatives, Part I.
The debate, on the topic of health care reform, is part of an effort by House leaders to raise the level of House discourse. It will be carried live on C-SPAN, the public affairs cable channel that televises the day-to-day proceedings of Congress, and by National Public Radio.
Patterned after debates of the Oxford University Political Union, the 90-minute discussion will pit four Democrats against four Republicans. It will be held on the House floor after the House finishes its regular business of the day -- probably around 8 p.m. -- and will replace "special orders."
Avid C-SPAN viewers know special orders as those long-winded speeches congressmen deliver in the evening to an empty House chamber after the day's official business is finished. The speeches are aimed at the TV audience at home.
Tonight will be different, said Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, who will moderate tonight's inaugural debate. "I expect the floor will be rather filled. We have a great deal of interest in this."
However, he added, the House has banned cameras from showing the empty House chamber during tonight's debate.
Unlike most House debates, or the special orders speeches, where members talk past each other, "the format for these debates will allow the participants to question each other in detail."
Mr. Cardin will open the debate with a five-minute statement. Four Democrats -- Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Pete Stark of California, Henry A. Waxman of California and Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut -- will argue in favor of the resolution.
Arguing against it will be four Republicans -- Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Bill Thomas of California, Thomas J. Bliley Jr. of Virginia and Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut.
The second debate, tentatively set for April 20, will discuss welfare reform or the economy, while the third debate, set for May 11, will be a bipartisan discussion of foreign policy. After the third debate, House leaders will decide whether to continue having them every three weeks.