Senate Republicans back off proposed restrictions on media – The Hill

Senate Republicans on Tuesday quickly backed away from a proposal to restrict media access in the Capitol after an angry backlash from reporters and an emergency meeting between the Senate Rules Committee and the media gallery directors.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) sent out a statement around lunchtime clarifying that there would not be a rules change, only a discussion about how to ensure safety as the Capitol hallways have become more hectic because of growing crowds of journalists.

Shelby announced in a statement that the committee had made “no changes to the existing rules governing press coverage on the Senate side of the Capitol complex.”

A Senate official familiar with administrative discussions said, “Everything you did before, you can still do.”

It was an abrupt 180-degree turn from earlier in the day when Senate Sergeant at Arms staff informed the press galleries of tough new restrictions. Democrats had seized on the news, linking the new restriction to the GOP’s work on healthcare legislation that is being drafted behind closed-doors.

Earlier in the day, Senate Sergeant at Arms staff earlier told the directors of the media galleries who represent journalists’ interests that reporters would not be allowed to film interviews with senators in the Capitol or the Senate office building without first receiving special permission.

Television reporters had been told they could not conduct on-camera interviews in hallways, outside personal offices or outside committee rooms without permission from the Senate Rules Committee, the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms or the Senate Radio and TV Gallery, depending on location, according to another Senate official involved in the matter.

Kevin Cirilli, chief Washington correspondent for Bloomberg TV, tweeted that he was informed that he could not stand outside the Budget Committee to interview lawmakers.

The gallery directors were also told that all reporters seeking to speak to senators in the basement of the Capitol, where it is easiest to catch lawmakers on the way to votes and lunches, would have to stand in a special press pen.

The directive appeared to in effect only briefly on Tuesday.

Amid the blowback, the Senate Rules Committee denied that it had instructed Senate administrative staff to crack down on reporters.

One Senate official said that the Senate Rules Committee insisted later Tuesday that it had never ordered the Sergeant at Arms to enforce tougher restrictions on the press and blamed the uproar on a miscommunication.  

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, told reporters that Shelby explained the alarm was set off by a “staff inquiry” and downplayed it as an “arbitrary enforcement of a rule that is against common practice.”

“He said he would never move forward on some major change without consulting with me. He said it was an inquiry and that we would talk about it. So he seemed to imply that they weren’t going to change the policy,” Klobuchar told reporters.

She also released a statement that said, “As ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee I call on the majority to allow reporting in the Capitol to proceed as usual.”

Members of the media had responded with outrage to the restrictions.

“Senate Rules Committee and @SenateSAA trying to SHUT DOWN press access in halls. No more staking out hearings without permission. Not OK,” Manu Raju, CNN’s senior congressional reporter, tweeted, using an abbreviation for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms.

Several senators from both parties criticized the move.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted:  “Maybe not the right moment to lower the secrecy veil on Congress. To whoever is trying to protect Senators – we can fend for ourselves.”

“I want you to have access to us, inform your readers, inform your viewers what we’re trying to do,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the most media-friendly senators, told reporters in the Senate subway. But “of all the problems in America, y’all are pretty down on the chain.”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) retweeted an NBC News reporter’s tweet, adding: “This is a bad idea.”

Tensions between the media and reporters have ratcheted up at the Capitol since President Trump pulled off a major political upset by defeating Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonSenate Republicans back off proposed restrictions on media Trump friend clashes with White House over special counsel claims The Hill’s 12:30 Report MORE in November.

Public interest in Congress and media coverage of lawmakers has skyrocketed since Trump’s inauguration and crowds of reporters in the Capitol hallways have hit record sizes.

Last month, the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms sent a note to media outlets warning about overcrowding as reporters try to pin down lawmakers for interviews in hallways and around the Senate subway system. 

Since the beginning of the year, media outlets such as CNN, NBC and Fox News have regularly staked out senators outside of their offices and hearing rooms to ask questions about healthcare reform and the investigations into collusion between the Trump administration and Russia.

 

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