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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Terry Phillips and Congressman Kevin McCarthy get ready to square off in a debate at KGET on Wednesday night in Bakersfield. The debate will be broadcast this weekend.

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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Challenger Terry Phillips gestures while making a point in his debate with Congressman Kevin McCarthy at KGET on Wednesday night.

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Michael Fagans / The Californian

In this file photo from the 2012 campaign, no party preference candidate and challenger Terry Phillips gestures while making a point in a debate with incumbent Congressman Kevin McCarthy at KGET Channel 17 studios.

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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Congressman Kevin McCarthy makes a point while debating challenger Terry Phillips at KGET on Wednesday night.

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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Terry Phillips, a No Party Preference candidate, and Congressman Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, debate face-to-face at KGET in October. They're running to represent the 23rd Congressional District.

In a spirited and robust debate that will air Sunday on KGET Channel 17, Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy and challenger Terry Phillips sparred over immigration, bringing jobs to the Central Valley and the political divide that many see as blocking progress in Congress.

It's the first matchup so far between McCarthy, the House Republican whip, and Phillips, who is running without a party affiliation, in the 23rd Congressional District race.

Phillips, a former CBS newsman who covered the breakup of the Soviet Union and conflicts in Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia, challenged McCarthy again and again, saying he's been a polarizing and ineffective congressman.

But McCarthy, who is seeking his fourth term and has run largely unopposed the last three times, was ready with specifics and examples delivered with polish.

Phillips said he doesn't want to be "part of the problem." He laid part of the blame for the perceived polarization in Congress at McCarthy's feet.

McCarthy argued the House of Representatives has passed 39 bills related to jobs with bipartisan support, but those have stalled in the Senate. The House has a Republican majority, the Senate a Democratic one.

But, Phillips said, many of those bills include "poison pills" that guarantee they won't be passed in the Senate.

"All I see in the House of Representatives is two parties sitting on opposite sides of the room refusing to work together. ... This isn't democracy, and it's not working," Phillips said. "When you put a provision in a bill you know is going to be rejected, that's not bipartisan."

McCarthy was ready with several examples of legislation he's worked on to illustrate his effectiveness, such as the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, aimed at encouraging small business growth, and his efforts to protect business growth at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

"We have to end uncertainty to build a small business with access to capital," McCarthy said about job creation in the district, which includes most of Kern and Tulare counties and a small part of Los Angeles County. "That's one of the bills I was able to pass this year ... in the JOBS Act (that) the president actually signed."

Phillips said, "I agree ... that uncertainty is a big problem (for business growth). Unfortunately, one reason we have uncertainty is because of the policies that (McCarthy) has pursued, in Congress, particularly in the run-up to the increase in the debt ceiling. He brought our government to the brink of shutdown. Because of his poor negotiations, we were left with a lower credit rating. These are things that cause uncertainty."

Phillips said the problem of unemployment in the Central Valley is a lack of people qualified for available jobs, and that he was against cuts to Pell grants for college students.

On the state's high-speed rail plans, the debate came down in part to who spends more time in the district. Phillips supports the project; McCarthy called it a "boondoggle."

Phillips said McCarthy hasn't been present for meetings in the district to discuss alternative routes for the rail system because he spends more time in Washington, D.C., than in Bakersfield.

But, McCarthy responded, he has been engaged in local discussions about the project.

"I know you're not from Bakersfield," McCarthy told Phillips. "But where that cuts through the Central Valley, it's the heartland that feeds the world. ... It goes right by Bakersfield High School."

McCarthy said pushing through the project would mean cuts to education.

"You cannot leverage our education system in California and subsidize every rider that's going to be on that train just because someone has a European view of California," he said.

On immigration, the two men differed sharply again.

Anchor Jim Scott asked each whether he supported the DREAM Act, which gives permanent residency to certain illegal immigrants who came to the United States as minors.

"I don't think that depriving people of the opportunity to become good Americans makes any sense at all," Phillips said. "We can't continue treating people as potential criminals just because they're not born in this country."

"It is true that the rule of law is very important," he added. "There are bad people among them. Let's focus on them."

"First and foremost, we have to secure the borders" with security walls and technology, McCarthy said. "What's happening on this other side of the border today is a major drug war. ... Before you do anything on immigration, you control the borders."

The debate was taped Wednesday night at KGET's studios with anchors Scott and Tami Mlcoch asking most of the questions. Former Kern County Supervisor Gene Tackett and Cathy Abernathy, Assemblywoman Shannon Grove's district office chief of staff, also put questions to the candidates.

KGET allowed The Californian to attend.

Phillips and others had been advocating for several months for the two men to debate. In June, for example, a Facebook effort began, calling for a debate.

It took several months and several apparent false starts, however, for a date and place to be set.