What do health care, gun control, and cybersecurity have in common? Nothing. Unless you're the U.S. Senate.
Senate debate over a bill designed to boost American cybersecurity got off to an inauspicious start on Tuesday as members of both parties sought to attach hot-button amendments on issues such as health care and gun control.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., kicked off his morning remarks with a proposal that the Senate vote on a repeal of the health care reform law as part of the cybersecurity bill.
That, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., shot back, is “ridiculous.” Reid said he would reject attempts to hijack the consideration of cybersecurity legislation. He asked sponsors of the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 to settle on a “finite” list of amendments that would allow the Senate to vote on the bill before Congress leaves for August recess at the end of the week.
A group of Democrats, meanwhile, is trying to include an amendment that would effectively prohibit the online sale of firearms ammunition to anyone but licensed dealers. That measure was also announced as a separate bill on Monday.
The lead sponsor of the Cybersecurity Act, Senate Homeland Security Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., said he was “disheartened” to hear talk of health care and gun control provisions and pleaded with colleagues not to delay action on cybersecurity in order to debate other issues.
“There’s a day for that, but it’s not this week,” Lieberman said on the floor. “We don’t have time to sit here staring at each other.”
Senate leaders have been frantically trying to come to an agreement on which of the 90 amendments filed as of Tuesday should be debated. Lieberman has said the bill could die if not passed before the August recess. He and other supporters of the legislation are racing the clock with only a few days to go.
Despite lingering disagreements and the sideshow over gun control and health care, Lieberman said that he has been making progress with critics and there is hope the Senate can come together to pass a bill, if only it can start moving forward with the long list of proposed amendments.
“What was once a wide chasm separating us is now a narrow ridge,” he said.
There is less optimism elsewhere. Many of the bill's most ardent critics show little indication of giving ground. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who has proposed competing cybersecurity legislation, said on Tuesday he has seen no signs of compromise.
“There’s not been any movement that I’m aware of,” he told National Journal. “It’s got to be done right. It is important that we get it done, but only when it’s done right.”
The wide-ranging Cybersecurity Act would establish a system of voluntary security standards for certain critical businesses; encourage businesses and government to share cyberthreat information; boost programs to educate and train cybersecurity professionals; and update federal network security policies.
Republican and industry detractors, however, say the government should have little — if any — role in setting standards for private companies. Other critics contend the Homeland Security Department couldn’t handle an increased role in cybersecurity matters.
The White House, which backs the bill, has sent a steady stream of top national security officials to Capitol Hill to push for legislation. Reid said there would be a senators-only closed-door briefing on Tuesday evening. Earlier on Tuesday, Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, sent a letter to Senate leaders urging them to pass the bill.
“The time to act is now; we simply cannot afford further delay,” Alexander wrote in a letter to Reid and McConnell. He warned, however, that any final bill needs to include measure to protect critical infrastructure such as electric grids or water treatment plants. Some Republicans are pushing a substitute bill that would avoid any such protections.