Senate Commerce panel approves cybersecurity bill

The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved an industry-backed bill aimed at boosting the nation's cybersecurity on Tuesday, paving the way for a full Senate vote on the measure before the end of the year.

The bill, authored by Senate Commerce leaders Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) would codify a section of President Obama's cybersecurity order that tasks the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standard and Technology (NIST) to work with businesses to craft a framework of cybersecurity best practices and standards. NIST has already held a set of workshops with industry groups across the country to start drafting the framework, which is due in October. 

The bill has received backing from a wide range of industry groups, including USTelecom and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for its non-regulatory approach.

"Our bill takes some important steps to help our private companies and our government agencies to defend their networks against their adversaries," Rockfeller said in his opening statements at the panel's markup. "It doesn’t do everything we need to do to improve our cybersecurity, but it’s a good start and I thank Senator Thune for working with me on this urgent issue."

The bill would also boost cybersecurity research and development, education and public awareness about cyber threats. 

Commerce panel members adopted five non-controversial amendments to the bill, which were not debated during Tuesday's markup. An amendment from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) would require the Government Accountability Office to conduct a report every two years on NIST's efforts to develop standards and procedures to reduce the risk of cyberattacks against critical infrastructure. Additionally, an amendment from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) that was adopted to the bill would establish research centers for cybersecurity.

Last year the Senate failed twice to pass a sweeping cybersecurity bill that would have encouraged critical infrastructure companies, such as power plants and water systems, to adopt a set of cybersecurity standards into their computer systems and networks so they're protected from hackers. Senate Republicans blocked the bill, which Rockefeller co-sponsored, because they believed it would make businesses follow new costly regulations. 

This post was updated at 5 p.m.