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Cyber threat bill clears Senate panel

A Senate committee on Thursday approved legislation that gives the Energy secretary power to issue emergency orders for imminent cybersecurity threats to the electric grid.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee was initially considering a similar measure that passed the House in June. Sponsored by Global Warming Chairman Edward Markey, D-Mass., that bill grants the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission -- not the Energy secretary -- the authority to issue emergency orders to protect the power grid if the president declares an imminent cybersecurity threat. The Senate's measure gives authority to FERC for risks that are not as imminent.

The point behind designating power to a single person rather than an agency like FERC is to help ensure a more rapid response.

he measure approved today is actually the cybersecurity title from a sweeping energy bill the Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved last year. The panel swapped the House language for the Senate's language with hopes it would have a better chance of passing the upper chamber.

"Both the House and the Senate developed thoughtful, and needed, cyber bills which address many of the same issues," said Bill Wicker, spokesman for Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. "We think that the Senate's version is more likely to move more quickly on this side of the Capitol. And that is our main objective -- to have Congress act quickly on this critically important issue."

Moderate members from both parties doubt though that the Senate has the political will to pass such a bill.

"I don't see many things that can get bipartisan support yet this year," Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said today.

While noting that cybersecurity is a serious issue that deserves consideration, Nelson said that "what seems to be driving most of the policy decisions over here is the outcome of this next election."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., predicted no big measures will pass before November, noting that cybersecurity is a national security issue and thus qualifies.

The cybersecurity measure was one of 17 bills the energy committee approved today without a single Republican present. The GOP members wanted the panel to postpone the markup until after the August recess. Noting the dwindling legislative calendar, the majority decided to move forward now, Wicker said.

While taking issue with the procedural side of the markup and some of the other energy bills that passed today, Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, does not have any objections to the cybersecurity measure, her spokesman said.

Of the 17 bills approved today, six deal with energy and 11 with public lands. The energy bills include those that incentivize electric vehicle technology and solar energy, and one that creates a Supply Star program within the Energy Department. The program would incentivize the use of efficient supply chains by companies.

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