U.S. Senate staffers instructed reporters Tuesday not to film interviews with senators in the hallways of the Capitol in Washington without prior permission from a committee, journalists said, reversing years of precedent in which those interviews were freely and regularly conducted.
Conditions for any interview must now include "previously-granted permission from senator and Rules Committee of Senate," a panel run by Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, NBC News reported on Twitter. A Bloomberg TV journalist was told he couldn't stand outside the Senate Budget Committee hearing room to interview lawmakers.
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 defended the measure, saying in a statement that the panel hasn't changed existing rules and is merely trying to enforce them to provide safety for lawmakers, journalists, aides and members of the public.
The Senate Rules Committee didn't answer a phone call seeking a copy of the new rules and didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.
The move follows 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."
Senator Amy Klobuchar, the ranking member of the rules panel, said she spoke with Shelby and he told her he doesn't support stopping reporters from doing their jobs.
In a statement, Klobuchar urged Republicans "to allow reporting in the Capitol to proceed as usual."
Other senators also expressed disagreement with the restriction.
"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 Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, on Twitter.
"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 David Perdue, a Georgia Republican, expressed skepticism that the crackdown would last long.
"What we've been doing works fine," Perdue said in a Bloomberg TV interview. "This is a new rule. I just can't imagine it standing."
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