Napolitano: Administration will act on cybersecurity if Congress fails to pass bill

"We'll have to wait and see when the Congress comes back. They've got a long list of things that need to be dealt with," Napolitano said at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies' Women in International Security organization. "But again my hope, the ideal way to go is through Congress, but if Congress cannot act, then the executive branch is going to have to."

The Homeland Security Secretary said the administration is currently reaching out to the private sector and stakeholders about the order to "look at it and get some feedback" before it's issued, "if there is ultimately that decision to go by the executive order."

Senate Republicans have urged the White House to abandon the executive order and let Congress continue its work on passing a cybersecurity bill. They contend that only Congress has the authority to enact new legislation that would boost the nation's security from hostile cyber actors, while an executive order can only implement policies based on existing authorities and structures.

Napolitano said the administration is drafting the executive order because "we recognize that given the severity and urgency of the situation, we can't simply wait if Congress cannot act."

During her keynote address, Napolitano said the department has observed that "the attacks on the nation's core critical infrastructure have become more severe and more numerous."

The event discussed the importance of building a diverse workforce of skilled cybersecurity professionals in the United States, as well as how to recruit more women into cyber defense jobs.

Napolitano outlined the variety of initiatives the Department of Homeland Security has dedicated toward this effort, including the joint program it sponsors with the National Security Agency at universities to train college students in cybersecurity skills, and another program where private sector executives spend two years working at the department. She added that the administration has also rolled out policies aimed at attracting more students into the so-called STEM fields, such as math, science and engineering.

"We all recognize ... that the U.S. must have a STEM savvy, cyber savvy workforce moving forward if we are to maintain our economic place in the world and really be an economy that survives and thrives, so we all have a vested interest in making sure this happens," Napolitano said.