WASHINGTON — A bill to protect journalists from having to reveal their sources in some federal courts stalled in the Senate today, the latest victim of a partisan fight over what to do about gas prices.
Republicans blocked the measure, saying the Senate should act instead on an energy bill that would promote more domestic oil and gas production.
Democrats wanted to put aside the energy measure to debate and pass the media bill, which would shield reporters from being forced by federal prosecutors to reveal their sources, except in certain circumstances.
Anti-terrorism cases are exempted, for example, as is information that could stop a murder or kidnapping.
On a 51-43 vote, the bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Pence and Sen. Richard Lugar, both R-Ind., fell nine votes short of the 60 it would have needed to move forward over the GOP objections.
The Bush administration and many congressional Republicans are strongly opposed to the media shield, arguing the bill could damage national security by harming prosecutors' ability to track leaks.
Proponents argue that confidentiality has been crucial to journalists' pursuit of important stories, and that a recent flurry of attempts to compel reporters to cough up their sources' identities is proof that the legislation is needed.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the measure "protects both the freedom of the press and the security of our citizens. In a free and democratic country, we should be able to do both."
Republicans said they were uncomfortable about limiting the legislation to certain people, contending the government shouldn't determine who gets journalistic protections and who doesn't.
"Congress would be deciding who is a legitimate journalist and who is not, and I, for one, am not comfortable with the federal government licensing journalists," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
The bipartisan group pushing the bill was offering changes to address GOP criticisms.
Their proposal would have made it easier for prosecutors to compel reporters to reveal sources in cases involving leaks of classified information.
It defined a journalist as anyone who regularly gathers and reports information of public interest with the intent of disseminating it to the public.
Proponents of a federal shield law got momentum from U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's decision to subpoena reporters to testify against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, once a White House aide, in a case that grew out of Fitzgerald's leak investigation. Libby was convicted of obstruction, perjury and lying to the FBI; his sentence was commuted by President Bush.
"Reporters have been intimidated — a chilling effect — by the subpoenas which have been issued," said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the lead Republican sponsor.
A similar measure overwhelmingly passed the House in October.