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Senate cybersecurity bills snagged on 'fundamental' differences

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz // Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The chances for bipartisan agreement on sweeping cybersecurity legislation appeared slim on Tuesday, as top Republicans in the Senate said that fundamental differences remain.

The Cybersecurity Act of 2012, which is backed by the White House and Senate Democratic leaders, has been stalled by opposition from a group of Republican committee leaders who say that the bill gives Homeland Security officials too much authority over certain private networks.

“There’s a fundamental philosophical difference here,” said Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., who has led the group of GOP dissenters in proposing their own, more industry-friendly Secure IT Act.

When asked by National Journal whether he is any closer to striking a compromise with the sponsors of the Cybersecurity Act, McCain said no.

Instead of giving DHS authority to help develop and enforce standards for critical domestic networks, government cybersecurity efforts should rely more on offensive capabilities like those of the National Security Agency’s Cyber Command, he said.

Despite White House calls for Congress to act quickly to address cyberthreats, McCain said it's not worth compromising if the legislation won't be effective. “Why pass something that won’t work?” he asked.

The Republican sponsors of the Secure IT Act are in discussions with Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and the other sponsors of the Cybersecurity Act, said Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

The Senate has pursued a plan to pass one comprehensive cybersecurity bill, as opposed to the House, which moved ahead with a series of smaller bills that gathered bipartisan support.

Despite the stalemate in the Senate, Hutchison said she still wants to try for one broad bill. “If we could get an agreement on a comprehensive bill, that would be better,” she said.

Lieberman said that Senate leaders can spur compromise by being more vocal about setting a deadline for the Cybersecurity Act to be considered during the next work period.

Lieberman has been trying to corral support for his bill, but on Monday the Cybersecurity Act took friendly fire from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who echoed concerns from civil-liberties groups that complain all the major cybersecurity bills before Congress would undermine privacy.

“Both the House and Senate bills subordinate all existing privacy rules and constitutional principles to the poorly defined interest of cybersecurity,” Wyden said in a speech on the Senate floor on Monday.

Rules designed to help companies and government agencies share information on cyberthreats could allow personal information to be used for a range of other purposes, Wyden said.

That, Lieberman told reporters on Tuesday, is “totally unfair.” He continued: “I have a lot of respect for Ron Wyden, but there’s no basis for that.” 

In comments to reporters on Tuesday, Wyden compared cybersecurity bills to controversial antipiracy legislation, but he said it is “premature” to say whether he will take steps to block the bills.

Congress is considering ways to increase cybersecurity among federal agencies and private businesses. Republicans have favored voluntary and incentive-based ways to prod businesses to better protect their networks, but Democrats, led by the White House, say that any meaningful legislation must give federal officials more authority to protect critical networks.

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