Television reporters covering the Capitol were told midday Tuesday to stop filming interviews in Senate hallways, a dramatic and unexplained break with tradition that was soon reversed amid wide rebuke from journalists, Democratic lawmakers and advocacy organizations.
The episode heightened existing concerns about reporters' access to Washington leaders in an era when hostility toward the political media has increasingly become the norm. For a short period Tuesday, the move to protect senators from impromptu on-camera interviews seemed part of a wider Trump-era move to roll back press freedoms, whether by barring reporters from interviewing officials or denying them access to briefings, trips and events.
"These are actions that are without precedent in the history of the White House and Congress," said Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union and director of the group's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
"Even if some of the violations are of norms rather than rights, the effect is to make the government less transparent at precisely the moment when congressional oversight has been at its weakest," Wizner said.
Correspondents from major television networks said staff from the Senate Radio and Television Gallery told them they could no longer conduct impromptu interviews with lawmakers in the hallways without prior authorization from the Senate Rules Committee and the lawmakers' own staff.
"Reporters were in hallways this morning per usual. Gallery staff were dispatched to issue verbal directive: Stop filming," Kasie Hunt, a congressional reporter with NBC News, wrote on Twitter. "Gallery staff told us the decision was from the Senate Rules Committee and to call them for future interview permission."
Other reporters shared similar experiences.
"I was just told I cannot stand outside of the Budget Committee hearing room to interview lawmakers," Bloomberg TV chief Washington correspondent Kevin Cirilli wrote on Twitter. He added he had scheduled an interview with Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., that was "canned last second" because of the alert.
The Senate Radio and TV Gallery, which helps to manage the logistics of networks' presence on Capitol Hill, declined to comment. "I've got no news for you," a staffer at the gallery told The Post. She declined to give her name and hung up.
Gallery director Mike Mastrian did not respond to several other requests for comment.
Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., denied that his panel has placed any additional restrictions on reporters.
"The Rules Committee has made no changes to the existing rules governing press coverage on the Senate side of the Capitol complex," Shelby said in a statement.
"The Committee has been working with the various galleries to ensure compliance with existing rules in an effort to help provide a safe environment for Members, the press corps, staff and constituents as they travel from Senate offices to the Capitol. Once again, no additional restrictions have been put in place by the Rules Committee."
The apparent change in practice comes as the number of reporters on Capitol Hill has increased dramatically, reflecting the high stakes facing Republicans as they respond to controversies involving Trump and attempt to advance their policy agenda.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minn., the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, told reporters the policy was not formal and that Shelby had called it a "staff inquiry." She said Shelby hadn't notified her of any changes, but assured her over the phone on Tuesday that he wouldn't move forward on a major shift without first consulting her.
"He seemed to imply they weren't going to change the policy, but I'm not going to put words in his mouth," Klobuchar told reporters.
Were Shelby to go forward with the new press restrictions, Klobuchar said she would oppose it, calling it an "assault on the First Amendment."
"You don't shut down the press if you don't want to do interviews," she said. "You just say 'I don't want to do interviews today.' "
Both Klobuchar and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., insinuated that Republicans want to reduce press access because they're involved in crafting an unpopular, partisan health-care bill.
"They're trying to keep senators from being held accountable with respect to health-care policy, and I think it runs contrary to the openness and transparency the American people deserve," Wyden told reporters.
A bevy of Senate Democrats condemned the restrictions that were communicated Tuesday morning to reporters.
"Press access should never be restricted unfairly, particularly not when one party is trying to sneak a major bill through Congress," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote on Twitter, alluding to the Republican health-care bill.
"This is cowardly and unilateral," Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, wrote on Twitter.
"Maybe worried you [journalists] will catch the group of guys writing health care bill in backroom somewhere," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., wrote on Twitter.
Echoing Shelby, Republican staff director of the Rules Committee Bill Duhnke denied the panel had authorized additional restrictions on reporters.
"The Rules Committee has done no such thing," he said in an interview. "We have not directed anyone to restrict anyone's access."
The Washington Post's Paige Winfield Cunningham contributed to this article.