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Cybersecurity, virtual border fence on Hill agenda

While talk about improving the economy and fiscal responsibility is likely to dominate the early days of the new Congress, lawmakers and key congressional committees are also expected to address a handful of homeland security issues through legislation and hearings in the next few months. And two of them involve technology issues.

The Senate is taking the lead on legislation to improve the government's ability to protect critical information technology networks. Just before the Christmas recess, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wrote to President Obama asking for the administration to weigh in on the matter.

"It is my intent to bring cybersecurity legislation to the Senate floor for consideration early in the 112th Congress," Reid wrote to Obama on December 17. "As such, it is imperative that you are prepared to engage with us and provide this input at the earliest possible date next year."

Reid previously wrote Obama asking for input but received no response. Ultimately, Reid wants to combine cybersecurity provisions from bills written by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee, with input from lawmakers on other key panels such as Judiciary and Intelligence.

At the same time, lawmakers and the Obama administration must confront the issue of what to do with the SBInet program, which was created to build a virtual fence using technology along the southern border. About $1 billion has been spent to date.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano froze funding last year to expand the project beyond two test phases in Arizona. The funding freeze remains in place pending a department review.

"We expect the results shortly and as soon as we have secured FY11 funding, we will move forward with the administration's new approach to Southwest border technology," DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler said in a statement.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the matter needs to be resolved. "I'm not questioning the suspension of it, but the fact is we've gone a year with nothing happening," he said. "That's unacceptable."

For now, DHS has been granting SBInet prime contractor Boeing temporary extensions to continue its work. The most recent extension expires Jan. 18.

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