WASHINGTON - The prospect of congressional approval of a federal "media shield" law this year dimmed yesterday when Senate Republicans blocked legislation that would protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources.
Supporters of the shield bill said it was possible - but unlikely - that the issue would be revived in September, after the Senate takes a planned monthlong recess starting this weekend. Otherwise, backers of the bill would be forced to try again in January, when a new Congress convenes.
The shield bill was derailed in the Senate when Republican senators - seeking a floor vote on a broad energy bill - blocked efforts by Senate Democratic leaders to debate other measures, including the media shield proposal.
The Senate fell eight votes shy of the 60 necessary to limit debate - and thus thwart a Republican-led filibuster - on the media shield bill. Five Republicans, including bill sponsors Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, broke party ranks and voted to begin debating the shield legislation.
"I would say the odds are Republicans killed media shield today," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, who has used his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee to advance the legislation.
Leahy vowed to "keep bringing it back as much as we can," but he acknowledged that the Senate's calendar in September could be very crowded with "all the other important things we have to do."
Specter said he would keep "pressing" for the media shield bill, but he predicted that the measure "won't be acted on by the balance of the Congress."
Despite opposition from the Bush administration, the media shield bill is relatively popular on Capitol Hill. The House overwhelmingly passed its version of the legislation by a vote of 398-21.
The similar Senate measure would shield reporters from being compelled to disclose their sources, except in limited cases, such as when the evidence would help prevent an act of terrorism or when there is "significant and articulable harm to the national security."
Major news media companies, media associations and 42 state attorneys general back the legislation, calling it a vital protection for reporters and photographers who are increasingly being asked to open their notebooks and cameras for federal prosecutors.
Leahy said the legislation is crucial to ensuring that journalists have the protection they need to investigate alleged wrongdoing without fear that they risk jail time by protecting anonymous sources.
"Time and again, when crimes have been committed, when scandals have erupted," the incidents have come to public light "because the press found them out," Leahy said. "We need this shield law."
The measure generally agrees with Justice Department guidelines governing when media representatives can be subpoenaed for confidential source information. The bill would put federal judges - not Justice Department officials - in charge of determining on a case-by-case basis whether it was in the "public interest" to compel journalists to reveal their confidential sources.
Under the bill, journalists would not be protected in cases where they have been an eyewitness to a crime and where someone's life - or the prevention of physical harm - depends on the reporter identifying a source.
The Bush administration and some Republicans, including Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, say the exclusions in the bill aren't big enough and could hamper federal investigations of terrorism and other crimes. Kyl and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas also have taken issue with the definition of "journalists" who would be protected under the legislation.