Breakthrough? Cyber bills could reach Senate floor in July.

A bipartisan effort to move cybersecurity legislation in the Senate could bring pending bills to the floor for debate in July, but partisan differences in approaches to securing the nation’s critical infrastructure remain to be worked out.

Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) wrote Senate leaders June 18 urging them to reach an agreement to give cybersecurity legislation “a full and open debate.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters the next day that the debate could come in July.

“I think the only way we're going to iron out the differences on cybersecurity is [to] bring it to the floor,” he said. “I'm going to bring it up in July sometime.”

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Despite a growing consensus that a legislative framework is needed to help ensure the security of critical infrastructure that is increasingly vulnerable to online attacks, there are differing views of what that framework should look like. The bipartisan Cybersecurity Act of 2012 (S. 2105), introduced by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), would give the Homeland Security Department authority to establish security standards for designated critical infrastructure. The competing Secure IT Act (S. 2151), introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), focuses on enhanced information sharing between government and the private sector. It would give the intelligence community, particularly the National Security Agency, a larger role in protecting non-government infrastructure.

Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) are working on a compromise bill that would emphasize voluntary security standards for industry. Several more narrowly focused bills have been introduced in the House. The House in April passed the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (H.R 3523), which does not include security requirements for the private sector.

Ironing out the differences in competing bills in the waning days of the session during an election season could be difficult.

In their letter, Snowe and Warner said that bridging these divides on the issue of cybersecurity is critical to ensuring the credibility of any bill passed by the Senate.

“Our national and economic security depends upon the resilience of our nation’s information and communications networks, and it is essential that we be prepared to defend against cyber activity that could cause catastrophic damage and loss of life,” they wrote.

They acknowledged reasonable concerns on both sides of the aisle and called for a process to consider bills that would give the committees with jurisdiction a chance to provide input, set a firm timeline for debate in July, and commit to an open and fair process allowing any senator to offer amendments.

On June 6, seven former Pentagon, DHS and intelligence officials wrote to the Senate’s Democratic and Republican leaders, saying that the window of opportunity to pass critical legislation during this Congress is quickly disappearing and urging them to bring cybersecurity legislation to the floor as soon as possible.

Speaking on the Senate floor June 12, Reid cited a growing chorus of warnings that a damaging attack against the nation’s critical infrastructure is imminent and said that “inaction is not an option.” He called the Lieberman-Collins bill “an excellent piece of legislation” with the support of the national security community but acknowledged that “there are many possible solutions to this urgent challenge.”

“There is room for more good ideas on the table,” he said. “And I welcome to the discussion any Republican genuinely interested in being part of the solution.”

In a statement, Snowe said she was pleased with Reid’s proposal to bring legislation to the floor.

“We must show the American people that on matters as vital as our national security, we can put aside political differences and work together to produce legislation that will keep our nation safe from dangerous cyberattacks,” she said. “There is tremendous potential here for a bipartisan solution, and I look forward to the Senate working through these issues during a healthy debate in July.”


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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