Senate Republicans today blocked a bill intended to boost U.S. computer defenses, dealing a blow to a measure President Barack Obama says is needed to prevent potentially crippling cyber attacks by hackers.
An attempt by the Senate’s Democratic leadership to force a final vote on the legislation failed to get the 60 votes needed under Senate rules. The tally was 52-46, largely along party lines.
Republican opposition to the measure is “a profound disappointment, said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, in an e-mailed statement. ‘‘The politics of obstructionism, driven by special-interest groups seeking to avoid accountability, prevented Congress from passing legislation to better protect our nation from potentially catastrophic cyber attacks.’’
With the Senate set to begin an August recess at the end of this week, the odds are slim for reviving a computer security bill before November’s election, said James Lewis, technology program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
‘‘Nobody in Congress denies that we need to do something, but between business pressures and electoral pressures there’s no way they’re going to get to anything useful,” Lewis said in an interview. “The game now will be each side blames the other.”
The Obama administration and the bill’s backers devoted the days leading up to the vote to issuing dire warnings about the danger of digital attacks on vital U.S. assets such as power grids, telecommunications networks and chemical plants. Republicans said the measure would lead to excessive government regulations.
Supporters had been pushing for action on the bill before the recess, saying lawmakers would be distracted by election politics later this year.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said before the vote that Majority Leader Harry Reid was trying to “steamroll” opponents. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said Republicans are “running like scared cats” to please the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the measure.
Five Republicans crossed party lines to vote in favor of proceeding with the bill, and five Democrats sided with Republicans in blocking the measure. Reid also voted no for procedural reasons, so he can later bring up the bill for reconsideration.
Sponsored by Senators Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, the legislation would have set voluntary security standards for important privately owned infrastructure, with incentives to encourage companies to adopt the protections against hackers and malicious software.
It would also have encouraged information sharing on cyber threats between businesses and the U.S. government.
The Senate’s Republican leadership, the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups said the voluntary infrastructure standards would be a back door to government regulation.
Cyber attacks on U.S. computer networks increased 17-fold from 2009 through 2011, General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command, said last month, citing reports that digital adversaries have stolen $1 trillion of U.S. intellectual property.
In a bid to win Republican support, Lieberman last month revised his original legislation, which had called for the government to establish security rules for infrastructure, to instead seek voluntary standards.
A cybersecurity bill that passed the Republican-controlled House in April focuses on cyber-threat information sharing without setting standards for companies. It is sponsored by Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who leads the House Intelligence Committee.
“Because of the president’s push for aggressive regulation of the private sector in any cybersecurity legislation, and the White House’s refusal to engage on real consensus measures, the Senate is likely to miss a key opportunity to move a cybersecurity bill this year,” Rogers said in an e-mailed statement before the Senate vote.
Carney described the House bill as “deeply flawed,” saying it threatens the privacy of consumer data and does nothing to protect the nation’s infrastructure.
Lieberman’s bill is S. 3414. Rogers’s bill is H.R. 3523.
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