Prospects waned for legislation designed to strengthen U.S. defenses against computer attacks as an assistant to President Barack Obama called Republican opposition “hard to believe.”
With the U.S. Senate set to leave Washington by the end of this week for its August recess, Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, is seeking to end debate today and move to a vote on a cybersecurity proposal backed by Obama.
Efforts to forge a compromise have bogged down as Republicans contend that even voluntary standards to protect critical infrastructure would harm business, and senators from both parties offered amendments on topics including gun control and Obama’s health-care overhaul.
“Presidential politics are overtaking this bill at a rapid clip,” Stewart Baker, a former assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, said in an interview.
“There are too many people willing to play politics with this and too many outside groups wanting it to die, and it’s finally catching up with the bill,” said Baker, a partner at the Steptoe & Johnson law firm in Washington.
Lawmakers have failed to reach consensus amid warnings by current and former national security officials that U.S. networks are vulnerable to disruption by hackers and computer viruses, and to digital espionage by China and other countries intent on stealing American intellectual property.
Obama’s administration yesterday made a final push for the Senate legislation, which it says is necessary to protect the nation from a potentially catastrophic cyber attack.
“We find it hard to believe that there is any reason or basis to oppose this legislation,” John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, told reporters on a conference call yesterday.
Wrangling in the Senate has focused on security standards for privately owned infrastructure, such as power grids and water-treatment plants. Even if the Senate passes a bill, it will have to be reconciled with a differing measure that passed the House of Representatives, as Congress grapples with pending automatic spending cuts and prepares for the November election.
Sponsors of the Senate bill, led by Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, revised their measure last month in a bid to win Republican support. They replaced cybersecurity requirements for infrastructure that would be established by the Homeland Security department with a system of voluntary standards, encouraged by incentives such liability protection.
Lieberman also changed provisions allowing businesses and government to share cyber threat information, adding privacy protections for consumer data in a nod to concerns expressed by civil liberties groups.
The changes so far haven’t swayed Republicans and industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Financial Services Roundtable, and American Bankers Association, which have called the voluntary standards a back door to additional government regulation.
“The people who are directly affected by this, and that’s the business community of the United States of America, is unalterably opposed to the legislation in its present form,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said on the Senate floor yesterday.
McCain is sponsor of an alternative bill, supported by the Chamber of Commerce and business groups, which would promote sharing of cyber threat information without including infrastructure security mandates. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a similar measure in April.
General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, said last month that cyber attacks on critical infrastructure increased 17-fold between 2009 and 2011. He cited reports that digital adversaries have stolen $1 trillion of U.S. intellectual property.
“This is rising to be a greater threat than any other threat we face today,” Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said yesterday. He implored his colleagues to hold back amendments on such unrelated topics as health care and gun control that could thwart the legislation.
Democrats Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Charles Schumer of New York had proposed an amendment putting limits on high-capacity gun magazines, like one used in the July 20 Colorado theater shooting.
It’s difficult to see how the co-sponsors could alter the bill further, given the compromises they’ve already made by moving to voluntary industry standards, James Lewis, technology program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an interview.
“They’ve already thrown so much overboard, there’s very little left to sacrifice,” Lewis said.
The Lieberman bill is S. 3414. The McCain bill is S. 3342. The House bill is H.R. 3523.