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.) 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.”
The Hill added:
“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 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 of the Budget Committee hearing room to interview lawmakers.”
I was just told I cannot stand outside of the Budget Committee hearing room to interview lawmakers. https://t.co/gBdkztGLfO
— Kevin Cirilli (@kevcirilli) June 13, 2017
“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 Hill reported. “The directive appeared to be in effect only briefly on Tuesday.”
Shelby told reporters on Tuesday afternoon that Rules Committee staff had been meeting with the press gallery and Sergeant-at-Arms.
“I think they had a discussion, I wasn’t there, of existing rules because a lot of people complained, not to me, said the press gets in their way and aggressiveness,” Shelby said.
“I said leave it alone, leave it alone, we don’t care you know? I don’t,” Shelby added. “So I told them to stand down.”
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 the Twitter handle 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.”
Here’s how several Democratic senators responded to reports of a crackdown on press access on Tuesday:
Press access should never be restricted unfairly, particularly not when one party is trying to sneak a major bill through Congress.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) June 13, 2017
As ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee I call on the majority to allow reporting in the Capitol to proceed as usual.
— Amy Klobuchar (@amyklobuchar) June 13, 2017
Huh? Maybe worried you will catch the group of guys writing health care bill in back room somewhere. https://t.co/tp5u2dFldh
— Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) June 13, 2017
This is Senate GOP trying to hide from their terrible health care bill. America – demand answers https://t.co/gh9NsTSxoI
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) June 13, 2017
Maybe not the right moment to lower the secrecy veil on Congress. To whoever is trying to protect Senators – we can fend for ourselves. https://t.co/YSbTuaIZKV
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) June 13, 2017
To be clear, this rule change on reporter access was a unilateral decision by the Republican members of the Senate Rules Committee. https://t.co/pVYM9g3u2f
— Senator Bob Casey (@SenBobCasey) June 13, 2017