Washington — If ever a performance could put a television audience to sleep, it must be the debate in the US Senate over whether to allow TV cameras to look in on Senate debates.
True to usual form, the chamber has been almost empty for the TV debate, which has been going on sporadically since early this month. One or two senators, standing by their quaint old wooden desks, praise the virtues of open government and call for letting the cameras in. One or two opponents counter that television will transform the Senate floor into a stump for presidential aspirants and produce a chamber full of faces in pancake makeup.
After the two sides have spun their arguments, someone asks for a quorum call , a customary way to stall for time. The clerk dutifully begins calling out the names of the 100 senators, one every 30 seconds or so, while the handful present decide what to do next. Eventually, the leadership decides to move to other business and return to the TV debate later. Neither side appears to have enough votes to settle the issue.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has allowed television to beam its floor proceedings all over the country for almost three years. All but five states have television in their legislatures. But the so-called ''greatest deliberative body in the world,'' the US Senate, has yet to allow even still cameras.
At the current rate, the television public may never watch the senators holding forth on the chamber floor. However, the idea has a powerful backer in Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee. The TV proposal was one of his first official acts when he became majority leader a year ago, and it is a longtime pet project of his.
Senator Baker sees three advantages to television: (1) It would increase the confidence of the public in the Senate; (2) it would help break through a ''cocoon like'' atmosphere and bring senators closer to the people; and (3) it would put the Senate on a more equal footing with presidents, who have long made use of television.
The Republican leader argues that the presence of TV cameras would improve and tighten debate in the chamber and provide a record for future generations. Think what it would have been like to watch the Lincoln-Douglas debates or a speech by Daniel Webster, Senator Baker has said to his colleagues.
Most of the Senate has been uncommonly quiet on the television issue. Many who oppose the idea are reluctant to speak out against open government. On a motion on whether to consider the question, only three voted ''no,'' even though close observers say opposition is much bigger than that.
Opponents, led by Sen. Russell B. Long (D) of Louisiana, list a host of worries. Members would make lengthy speeches aimed at the TV cameras and slow down the work of the Senate, the senator argues.
Opponents also point to the different rules in the House and Senate. In the House, debate is strictly controlled, and each member is given only five minutes to speak. The hallmark of the Senate always has been its free-flowing debate, allowing for meandering stop-and-go discussions, such as the one now in progress over TV. What would television networks do during the long quorum calls when nothing is happening, asks Senator Long?
Television would be the ''death-knell of unlimited speech and debate,'' according to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, who also opposes spending $5 million to install and operate eight remote-controlled cameras. He has proposed radio coverage instead.
Another concern is that senators would begin flocking to the Senate floor, rather than spending time in committee meetings where the real work is done. One senator pointed out that the daily Congressional Record, which reports floor action, now includes hundreds of little black circles (''bullets'') indicating that the member submitted his comments in writing, not in a speech.
''Do you think I would put in any more 'bullets'? '' says one member, commenting on the effects of television. ''No. I'd give a speech.'' And so would his colleagues, he adds.
Privately, some Democrats oppose TV because they feel it would somehow benefit Republicans, who are in the majority. Yet another concern not stated publicly is that right-wing organizations might take video tapes of liberal senators, edit them to show the senators in a bad light, and use them as a campaign weapon.
The ''public interest'' lobby, Common Cause, is among the groups that have urged the Senate to let in the cameras. ''It would allow people to see their leaders in action,'' says Common Cause president Fred Wertheimer in congressional testimony.
Thomas E. Mann, executive director of the American Political Science Association, sees a possible dark cloud, however. ''The House and Senate are fundamentally different,'' he says, and television as the ''great equalizer'' might tear down the differences.
''A lot of serious people have doubts about it,'' he says. ''I think those doubts are justified.''
''I don't think it (television) has changed the House a whole lot,'' adds the political scientist, a close Congress-watcher. But if the Senate is televised, he says, ''it may attract different types of people and it may lead them to think necessarily of direct, immediate, and instantaneous responses. There might be more position-taking and credit-taking.''
Meanwhile, chances for installing the TV cameras this year appear dim, as the Senate takes a week-long break. It returns Feb. 23 to face other, more pressing issues, including a ban on school busing and the disciplining of Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D) of New Jersey, the only senator convicted in the Abscam bribery cases.