Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The bad news last week for conservative Republican Rep. Mike Pence was private confirmation that his proposed law protecting journalists from runaway judges was opposed by President George W. Bush himself, not just inflexible Justice Department lawyers. The good news this week for Pence was an unexpected public endorsement by Bush's successor heading the Republican Party, John McCain.

That aligns McCain with his two Democratic rivals, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- reflecting bipartisan support for a shield law. Pence has spent three years seeking federal protection for journalists pressured to reveal confidential sources. His measure passed the House overwhelmingly last October, and a shield bill has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee. But the issue has been kept off the Senate floor by vigorous opposition from Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (McCain's junior colleague from Arizona).

Federal shield legislation became more urgent March 7, when drastic financial penalties were imposed on a reporter ordered to name all her sources. Opposition to relief by Bush and the Senate Republican leadership questions whether the Grand Old Party stands for limited government or, in pursuit of global terrorism, disdain for constitutional liberties.

No shield law had even reached the floor in Congress for 30 years, but the climate was changed by pressure on journalists by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in the CIA leak case, including an 85-day stay in prison for New York Times reporter Judith Miller. The House voted 398 to 21 for a shield law with all the Republican leadership on board, despite opposition from the Justice Department.

Journalists generally are not popular with conservative Republicans such as Pence, an evangelical and former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, who challenged the party establishment last year in running for minority leader. Pence summarized his commitment to shield legislation in a two-minute speech he delivered to the House March 12.

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton of Washington had just levied fines against former USA Today reporter Toni Locy escalating to $5,000 a day for failure to reveal all her confidential sources in reporting the 2001 anthrax attacks. Walton's decision, now under appeal, stipulated that neither USA Today nor anybody else could help pay the fines for Locy, now a $75,000-a-year journalism professor. Pence told the House that Walton's conduct showed the need to protect "the one time-tested way of holding the government accountable" and "ensuring the free flow of information to the American people."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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