Indiana Republican Rep. Mike Pence told a Washington audience Tuesday that he expected the Justice Department would probably weigh in again against a federal shield law bill at a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.
But he added that he thought Justice would also probably be open to continuing discussions on the bill. The Justice Department did not make an appearance at the first hearing on the bill back in July, though it submitted written testimony opposing it.
Pence, a former broadcaster, introduced a similar bill in the House and has been working with Senate Sponsor Richard Luger on the effort to protect journalists' confidential sources by setting national standards for government subpoenas.
Or, as Pence more poetically put it, "to repair the hole in the fabric of the First Amendment."
Pence cited Judith Miller, the NYT reporter jailed for 85 days for refusing to identify a source, and numerous other journalists in jeopardy, but he said he did not introduce his bill to protect journalists, but instead to protect the public's right to information "in real time."
Miller is also scheduled to testify at the hearing Wednesday.
Pence is a former conservative radio talk show host--he describes himself as "Rush Limbaugh on decaf"--who said he had worked around journalists enough to recognize the pressure to distill information and the importance to the country of reporting it in a timely fashion.
He said he was prompted to push for the federal shield law after reading a New York Times editorial suggesting one was needed but not to expect one from a Republican Congress.
He points out that, as one of the leaders of the House Republican conservatives, he believes strongly in the "small r" republican theory of limited government, and that "the only check on government in real time is a free and independnet press."
He pointed out that he was one of only 25 Republicans to vote against the Medicaid bill because it had morphed into a huge entitlement, but that that information had not gotten to the public.
Pence's original bill was an unqualified privilege, but that has been softened to exclude cases of imminent threat to national security. Pence said Tuesday it may be further qualified to exclude imminent threat of bodily harm.
One example might include, he said, if a journalist knew the whereabouts of kidnapped children, though he added that no such case had ever arisen.
Calling the bill "something of a heavy lift," though it has some bipartisan support, Pence asked broadcasters in the audience to report on the bill and the "urgent need" to repair that First Amendment fabric.
Pence was speaking to a Freedom of Speech Week luncheon kick-off at the National Press Club. The week is co-sponsored by The Media Institute, a media-sponsored First Amendment think tank, and by the National Association of Broadcasters.