Legislators took to the House floor Tuesday to call for passage of a federal shield law.
The bill -- co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and Democrat Rick Boucher of Virginia -- prevents the federal government from compelling testimony from reporters or forcing them to reveal sources except in very specific cases such as threats of bodily harm or to national security.
The bill is expected to get a vote later this afternoon, according to a spokesman for Pence's office.
Pence told his colleagues that the bill's qualifications strike the appropriate balance between the need for information and the "fair administration of justice." He added that the bill was not about protecting reporters as much as it was protecting the public's right to know. As a conservative, he said, "I believe concentrations of power should be subject to great scrutiny."
Democrat Louise Slaughter of New York agreed about the scrutiny but turned the issue into a criticism of the Bush administration's power over the press. She said that the media, which was intended to be a watchdog, had instead turned into a mouthpiece for the administration, not asking the tough questions about the war in Iraq and instead spreading patriotic propaganda and White House talking points.
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said protecting sources was crucial, and without such protections, some sources won't come forward and scandals like Enron, Abu Gharib and the conditions at Walter Reed might not be uncovered.
Slaughter called on journalists to use that shield to take on the tough stories. "Will the press pay as much attention to Blackwater as they did to Whitewater?" she asked. "I certainly hope so."
If the bill passes in the House, as expected, it will be the first of close to 100 such bills to make it that far. A Senate version passed in committee but awaits a floor vote in that body.