Senator Blames Miscommunication for Move Curbing Capitol Press

  • Shelby says he doesn’t expect anything to change in practice
  • Hallways interviews of senators were subject of prohibition

Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington on Dec. 9, 2014.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

A Senate Republican on Tuesday blamed a move to restrict press access in the U.S. Capitol on a “miscommunication” and said he doesn’t expect anything to change in practice.

U.S. Senate staff had instructed reporters Tuesday not to film interviews with senators in the hallways of the Capitol in Washington without prior permission from a committee led by Senator Richard Shelby, journalists said, reversing years of precedent in which those interviews were freely and regularly conducted.

The move prompted swift backlash from First Amendment advocates and senators on both sides of the aisle. It came amid mounting tensions over the public’s access to elected officials -- including Senate Republican leaders drafting an overhaul of American health-care policy behind closed doors.

Shelby had said in an earlier written statement that the rules panel he leads hadn’t changed existing rules and was merely trying to enforce them to provide safety for lawmakers, journalists, aides and members of the public.

Later he emerged to speak to reporters -- in a Capitol hallway -- about the episode.

“What the heck?” Shelby said was his reaction after after staff told him about the restrictions. “Reporters are aggressive but so are we.”

Safety Concern

Conditions for any interview must now include “previously-granted permission from senator and Rules Committee of Senate,” NBC News reported on Twitter earlier Tuesday. A Bloomberg TV journalist was told he couldn’t stand outside the Senate Budget Committee hearing room to interview lawmakers.

The move followed a message from Senate press gallery officials to news organizations last month that said, “Collectively, the press following Senators have become large and aggressive. We are concerned someone may get hurt.”

Press groups responded quickly to Tuesday’s move, with the Radio and Television Correspondents Association condemning the action and the Standing Committee of Correspondents saying it would “continue to strongly oppose any unreasonable restrictions on press freedom and access” in the Senate.

Shelby’s explanation also followed criticism from colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

“What we’ve been doing works fine,” Senator David Perdue, a Georgia Republican, said in a Bloomberg TV interview.

“This is a bad idea,” said Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, on Twitter.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said “of course” he opposes banning hallway interviews, according to NBC.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, the ranking member of the rules panel, in a statement urged Republicans “to allow reporting in the Capitol to proceed as usual.”

“Maybe not the right moment to lower the secrecy veil on Congress. To whoever is trying to protect Senators -- we can fend for ourselves,” said Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, on Twitter.

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