Longtime friends Lieberman, McCain divided over cybersecurity legislation

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has emerged as the leading opponent of cybersecurity legislation introduced by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

McCain and Lieberman are close friends who rarely disagree when it comes to national security.

But they are pitted against one another on the matter of Lieberman’s top legislative priority of the year, a measure he sees as capping his 24-year Senate career.

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Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the third banana in their “Three Amigos” act, has noticed the two are at loggerheads.

“They’re the best of friends who sometimes disagree,” Graham said. “And when they disagree, it’s a real doozy.”

Both men say their differences aren’t personal.

“There are a lot of things we don’t agree on, but we’re the closest of friends,” McCain told The Hill. “Those kinds of things are not going to impair a many-years relationship.”

But their disagreement exploded into the open during a hearing last month, and McCain is now a sponsor of a legislative alternative to Lieberman’s bill that is gaining steam.

Lieberman’s bill, which has GOP support from Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), is meant to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure from cyberattacks. It would encourage companies to share information with the government about cyber threats.

More controversially, it would give the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the power to set security standards for computer systems deemed critical to national security, such as the systems that control electrical grids or dams.

At a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing last month, McCain accused Lieberman, who chairs the committee, of trying to ram a flawed bill through Congress with Collins, the panel’s ranking member.

“Unfortunately, the bill introduced by the chairman and ranking member has already been placed on the calendar by the majority leader without a single markup or any executive business meeting by any committee of relevant jurisdiction,” McCain said at the time. “My friends, that’s wrong.”

Lieberman, who seemed taken aback by McCain’s strong criticism, shook his head throughout McCain’s remarks.

McCain, who famously considered Lieberman as his running mate in 2008 before settling on then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, said he believes Lieberman’s bill would grow the budget deficit and impose burdensome regulations on businesses.

“If the legislation before us today were enacted into law, unelected bureaucrats at the DHS could promulgate prescriptive regulations on American businesses, which own roughly 90 percent of critical cyber infrastructure,” McCain said at the February hearing. “The regulations that would be created under this new authority would stymie job creation, blur the definition of private property rights and divert resources from actual cybersecurity to compliance with government mandates.”

Lieberman seemed stunned.

“I have to be honest, I’m disappointed by your statement,” Lieberman told McCain, whom Lieberman endorsed for president over Barack Obama in 2008. Lieberman argued that a committee vote is unnecessary because Congress has been working on cybersecurity legislation for years and that his bill incorporates elements of several pieces of legislation that have already been through the committee process.

He said the only way to ensure that critical systems are not vulnerable to a devastating cyberattack, potentially costing thousands of lives, is to require that they meet certain basic security standards.

The White House agrees and has backed Lieberman’s bill.

But McCain, along with other top Senate Republicans, has introduced an alternative bill, the Secure IT Act.

The McCain bill focuses on encouraging private companies to share information about cyber threats and toughening penalties for cyber crimes. The bill also gives military agencies, such as the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, more of a role than DHS in addressing cybersecurity.

The Republican bill seems to be gaining momentum. GOP Reps. Mary Bono Mack (Calif.) and Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) plan to introduce McCain’s Secure IT Act in the House, and it is unclear whether the regulatory approach in Lieberman’s bill can gain enough support among conservatives to clear the GOP-controlled House.

Lieberman insisted there “is no personal rift at all” between himself and McCain, and both senators said they are continuing to try to find a compromise on the issue.

McCain pointed out that he has disagreed with Lieberman on other issues, including whether to repeal the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred gays from serving openly in the military. Lieberman was a leader in repealing the ban in late 2010, while McCain opposed it.

In an interview, Graham, who has worked closely with the other two senators on a host of issues, sought to steer clear of the dispute.

“You know old friends have rifts,” Graham said. “I have no idea who’s right. I don’t know enough about it.”

He didn’t offer an endorsement of either the McCain or the Lieberman bill, though he did say that a cybersecurity measure is one of the few “big accomplishments” that Congress could achieve this year.

“There’s a lot of bipartisan support that we need to do something,” Graham said, adding that he plans to look closely at both competing proposals.

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