WASHINGTON – Reporters covering the U.S. Senate have been told they can no longer film interviews with senators in the hallways outside their offices, an abrupt break with precedent that has set off alarm bells for journalists and media watchdogs.
Staff members of the Senate Radio and Television Correspondents Gallery told reporters late Tuesday morning they would not be allowed to film interviews with senators without prior permission from that senator’s office and the Senate Rules Committee.
Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, the Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said Tuesday that the Committee had “made no changes to the existing rules governing press coverage,” but that it was “working with the various galleries to ensure compliance with existing rules in an effort to help provide a safe environment for Members of Congress, the press corps, staff, and constituents as they travel from Senate offices to the Capitol.”
But reporters and many Democratic senators viewed the move as an effort to reduce press access and allow senators to conduct public business in private and without accountability. The directive, which was issued by the Senate Radio and Television Correspondents Gallery, comes as Senate Republicans are drafting a health care bill in a process shrouded in secrecy.
“ALERT: Reporters at Capitol have been told they are not allow to film interviews with senators in hallways, contrary to years of precedent,” NBC’s Kasie Hunt wrote.
“Senate Rules Committee and [Senate Sergeant at Arms] trying to SHUT DOWN press access in halls. No more staking out hearings without permission. Not OK,” wrote CNN’s Manu Raju.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the ranking member on the Senate Rules Committee, expressed her disapproval of the directive on Twitter.
“As ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee I call on the majority to allow reporting in the Capitol to proceed as usual,” Klobuchar tweeted.
Forty-five minutes later, Klobuchar tweeted: “Just spoke with Senator Shelby. He said he wouldn’t move forward on change to press access without consulting me and we must hold him to it.”
Reached by phone, a representative for the Senate Radio and Television Correspondents Gallery said she could not comment on the directive and referred CNNMoney to the Senate Rules Committee. When asked for her name, she said “I’m not going to give you that” and hung up.
The directive does come amid safety concerns due to overcrowding by reporters in the Senate hallways, but Democrats quickly attributed the decision to Senate Republicans’ work on the health care bill.
“.@SenateGOP are trying to hide their monstrous #Trumpcare bill,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote on Twitter. “And now they’re blocking reporters from uncovering the truth. Shame.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted, “Press access should never be restricted unfairly, particularly not when one party is trying to sneak a major bill through Congress.”
In 2001, Senate Democrats tried to evict print reporters and photographers from their offices near the Senate chamber, but backed away from the effort after lobbying from concerned media organizations.
(Dylan Byers, CNN)