Senate Republicans: Executive order would solidify divide on cybersecurity

A group of Senate Republicans urged President Obama on Tuesday not to issue an executive order on cybersecurity, arguing that only congressional action can adequately protect the nation's computer systems.

Administration officials have said they began drafting an executive order after Senate Republicans blocked cybersecurity legislation in August. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a recent congressional hearing that the order is "close to completion." 

In Tuesday's letter, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said an executive order would fail to address the nation's cyber vulnerabilities.

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“An issue as far-reaching and complicated as cybersecurity requires all stakeholders to work together to develop an enduring legislative solution through formal consideration and approval by Congress," they wrote. "Yet, rather than build confidence and unity among key stakeholders, an Executive Order will solidify the present divide."

The Cybersecurity Act, which had the support of the White House and Senate Democrats, would have set voluntary cybersecurity standards for operators of critical infrastructure, such as gas pipelines and banks. The bill would have also authorized companies and the government to share information about cyber threats.

Republicans supported the information-sharing provisions, but they worried the security standards would have burdened businesses and done little to improve security. Democrats argued the standards were necessary to ensure that vital systems were safe from attack.

Many of the Republicans who signed Tuesday's letter had pushed for their own cybersecurity bill, the Secure IT Act, which would have focused only on information-sharing.

Of the six Republicans on the letter, only Coats voted for the Cybersecurity Act on the Senate floor.

According to officials familiar with the draft executive order, it would encourage companies to meet cybersecurity standards. Legal experts say that only Congress can enact the information-sharing provisions, which would change existing laws.

"We remain committed to this legislative process and urge you to work with Congress rather than act unilaterally through an Executive Order," the Republicans wrote.

A host of Democrats have urged President Obama to move ahead with the executive order.

Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have all called on the president to issue an order in the light of the Senate's inaction.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a key co-sponsor of the Cybersecurity Act, has said she does not support an executive order, but she did not sign the GOP letter.


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