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 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 the Senate 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 be in effect only briefly on Tuesday.
Shelby told The Hill that his committee staff had acted without his knowledge after receiving complaints from other senators who sometimes feel hounded by reporters.
He instructed them to “stand down” and drop efforts to limit reporters’ activities.
“I know some of the staff talked to the people in the gallery and I think the Rules Committee talked to the Sergeant at Arms, not me,” Shelby said. “When I found out about it, I said stand down.”
“We’re not going to change any rules, not unless we hold committee hearings,” he added.
Shelby said he hopes no additional restrictions will be placed on reporters, noting, “We all benefit from you, as long as you act civil.”
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.
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 the 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.”
Tensions between the media and reporters have ratcheted up at the Capitol since President Trump pulled off a major political upset by defeating Hillary Clinton 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 Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.