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Senate Judiciary Punts Again On Shield Law

The Senate Judiciary Committee once again failed to bring a federal shield law bill to a vote, in its 16th attempt over the past seven months to do so.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) recessed the markup hearing Thursday after Republicans had numerous amendments lined up that would have to be introduced and debated and voted on, but he warned that unless a manageable list of amendments could be produced, the bill might be sent directly to the floor, bypassing the committee approval process.

While the current version is a compromise, Republican Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who opposes the bill as currently constituted, said it was only a compromise between parties that already supported the bill--the administration, committee Democrats, and journalists, not with Republicans like him with continuing issues about the balance of protections for journalists vs. law enforcement.

He said that the administration had not worked with him on his issues, and that he still had problems with the bill. Leahy urged Republicans to address those concerns and come to him with a limited number of amendments.

Bill co-sponsor Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said his staffers had concluded that there was no version of the bill that Kyl would support short of changes that would gut it.

But it was not only Republicans with issues. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she had troubles with the definition of journalist, which she thought was still too broad, though she would support the bill anyway. She said she was used to journalist meaning a truth-seeking professional.

That definition no longer is tied to an employer, so could include bloggers and freelancers.

"The continued attempts to give the government the ability to override the shield law would make it a paper shield at best," said Radio-Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) President Chairman Stacey Woelfel. "While I'm disappointed the committee did not vote to pass the bill today, my hope is that senators can regroup to bring a stronger version of the bill back for consideration as soon as possible."

RTDNA is one of the groups that has been pushing for years to get a federal shield similar to that in most states.

The bill gives journalists a qualified protection from being compelled to give up information or identify sources, though with a number of carve-outs for national security, bodily harm, and sensitive personal and business information.