A Republican-led Senate panel backed away from a plan to restrict media cameras in parts of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday after Democrats and some Republicans criticized the move as an attempt to curtail press access.
Senate staff who manage press access told television network reporters earlier Tuesday that they could no longer film interviews with senators in the hallways of the Capitol without first receiving permission, citing a directive from the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.
Such interviews, an everyday occurrence in designated areas throughout the Capitol, provide a running insight into legislators' thoughts on bills and hearings.
The staff said the restrictions were because the number of reporters has swelled due to negotiations on healthcare legislation and high-profile hearings. The directive came from the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees operations on the Senate side of the Capitol, they said. The panel is controlled by Republicans, since they hold the majority in the Senate.
Committee Chairman Richard Shelby said in a statement the panel was simply enforcing rules already on the books, adding it "has been working with the various galleries to ensure compliance with existing rules in an effort to help provide a safe environment."
The senior Democrat on the panel, Amy Klobuchar, said she was not consulted in advance and objected. In a statement, Klobuchar said she called on Republicans "to allow reporters to do their jobs."
She added that she had talked to Shelby, who had told her he would not move to change press access without consulting her.
"We must hold him to it. This is no time for limiting press access in the U.S. Senate — with Russia hearings, Attorney General (Jeff) Sessions testifying, and what appears to be the secretive drafting of a healthcare bill. We have to preserve freedom of the press,” she said.
Shelby's office did not respond to a request to discuss the dispute over media access except to provide his prepared statement.
A Senate aide, who asked not to be identified, said that Rules Committee members were "looking to make changes and have backed off for now."
"We're certainly not trying to deny anybody an opportunity to have questions asked," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said during a press conference, referring reporters back to the Rules Committee for detailed guidance.
The Capitol hallways have been crowded with both reporters and summer tourists in recent weeks as Senate Republicans work on an overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system. Current and former government officials have also drawn crowds at hearings related to probes into alleged Russian meddling in last year's presidential election.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Dustin Volz and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Frances Kerry)