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Turf War Erupts Over the Path of Cybersecurity Bill

What should be a consensus effort on a Senate bill to strengthen U.S. cybersecurity is in danger of devolving into partisan turf war.

With the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), seven ranking members of key committees are moving to delay an upcoming debate on a comprehensive cybersecurity bill. These Republicans, while expressing concerns about the substance of the bill, argue that the legislation should have been crafted under “regular order” and should have been considered by several committees of jurisdiction.

Instead of pushing it through a spate of committees, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and a bipartisan duo — Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine) — created working groups to allow Senators to influence the substance of the bill. It is not an uncommon practice on major legislation. Democrats contend that the Republican protests at the end of a two-year legislative process are mystifying; Democratic aides claim they are purely political.

“Process? I mean all we did was reach out. We started this three years ago,” Rockefeller told Roll Call late last week. “We’ve reached out to all the Senate offices, corporate America, [had] hundreds of meetings, and I think that’s the reason you’re going to see it pass.”

“The bill’s clearly been vetted enough,” Collins added during a brief interview.

Reid confirmed before the recess that he plans to bring the bill to the floor at some point after the Senate reconvenes next week.

But seven Republicans signed a letter to the Majority Leader requesting more committee input and time to debate the legislation. The letter was signed by Armed Services ranking member John McCain (Ariz.); Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions (Ala.); Commerce ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas); Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski (Alaska); Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Mike Enzi (Wyo.); Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Intelligence ranking member Saxby Chambliss (Ga.).

In a statement issued after the release of the letter, McConnell accused the Majority Leader of rushing a flawed bill to the floor and pulling the plug on the working groups before the process achieved the intended results. Just as the seven Senators requested in their letter, McConnell urged Reid to reroute the bill back to the committees of jurisdiction for formal markups.

“Unfortunately, the Majority Leader announced late last year that he would put a bill on the floor regardless of the outcome of the working groups that were intended to address the numerous issues associated with this subject and bring to bear the expertise of the various committees of jurisdiction,” McConnell said.

Led by McCain, the concerned Republicans are poised to unveil an alternative cybersecurity bill. The Arizona Republican explained while testifying Thursday at a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing on the existing legislation that his problems with the current bill are both substantive and process-related.

The bill aims to protect — through regulation and oversight of critical industries — the federal government; private companies and infrastructure, such as a region’s water supply or the financial markets, from being disrupted by computer hackers working on their own or at the behest of hostile governments or other entities.

But Republicans are not satisfied that the potential for negative “unintended consequences” has been adequately addressed.

Yet, in conversations with Republicans, it appeared clear that dissatisfaction with the process was driving their opposition. In particular, they expressed fears that Reid would not allow extensive floor debate and would block them from proposing amendments to the bill, a tactic referred to as “filling the tree.” In fact, Grassley said his concern that Reid would “fill the tree” was a major force behind his demand for regular order.

A Senate Democratic aide said that such worries are unfounded, noting that Reid has previously committed to “an open and fair amendment process,” adding that the Majority Leader “has no intention” of shutting off debate. “He wants to have as open a debate about the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 as Republicans will allow for,” the aide said.

Additionally, this aide reminded, Reid assured the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a letter sent to the business advocacy group earlier this month that “it is essential that we have a thorough and open debate on the Senate floor, including consideration of amendments to perfect the legislation.”

Murkowski indicated that she and her colleagues who sent the letter to Reid did so because they believe their policy concerns are being ignored.

The Alaska Republican said that the working group process managed by Reid, Rockefeller and Collins failed to sufficiently consider all of the proposals offered by Members and also disregarded work completed in the relevant committees, including in Energy and Natural Resources.  

“What we didn’t do was try to come together to really try and meld this into a product that I think is going to be good for the country as a whole,” Murkowski said. “It is important to recognize that the ranking members have come together, spent a lot of time trying to figure out how we address the very real, very legitimate concerns of cybersecurity.”

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