Cyber deal in view as negotiators finalize privacy language

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said Wednesday he is still negotiating the privacy language in a major cybersecurity bill, even as the White House reviews a near-final draft.

“I think everything’s been going in the right direction,” he told reporters. “I think it’s moved a long ways from the very beginning.”

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Lawmakers are working to merge three cyber bills that all aim to encourage private companies to share more data on hackers with the government. Negotiators are hoping to move a compromise text through Congress in the coming days, and have the finished legislation on President Obama’s desk by the end of the year.

Unofficial discussions have been taking place since the Senate passed its Intelligence Committee-originated bill in October, six months after the House passed two complementary bills — one from the Intelligence panel, another from Homeland Security.

But a flurry of last-minute negotiations over privacy provisions have tightened lawmakers’ timeline.

Late Tuesday, committee staff gave the White House an almost-completed draft. The administration's approval is one of the remaining hurdles needed to speed passage.

A final sticking point for negotiators is the language surrounding the “portal” through which companies would hand information on cyber threats over to the government, according to McCaul.

“The goal is to have [the Department of Homeland Security] as the lead civilian portal,” he said.

“The president can designate other portals if he deems necessary or appropriate,” McCaul added. “We just want to make sure that those are true civilian portals and not intelligence or law enforcement because, you know, you don’t want to share information with somebody that can either prosecute or spy on you.”

McCaul’s comments echo the ongoing concerns from the privacy and digital rights community about the cyber bill.

While many industry groups, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and even the White House have insisted the measure is a necessary first step to combating cyberattacks, numerous tech companies, technologists and privacy advocates believe such a bill will simply shuttle more personal data on Americans to the National Security Agency.

A coalition of civil liberties and digital rights groups have launched a last-ditch campaign to obstruct the compromise text. They sent letters to the White House and Capitol Hill on Wednesday, and have been bombarding key lawmakers with thousands of tweets since the weekend.

These critics believe the McCaul-sponsored bill has the strongest language to minimize the chances that personal details will be distributed to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

But lawmakers and those with direct knowledge of the ongoing discussions say the language surrounding the DHS portal has been largely settled within the last two days.

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffA new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign Officers offer harrowing accounts at first Jan. 6 committee hearing Live coverage: House panel holds first hearing on Jan. 6 probe MORE (D-Calif.), the Intelligence Committee’s ranking member and cosponsor of his committee’s bill, tried to reassure opponents that the compromise language has taken privacy into account.

“For me, a chief concern in any info-sharing bill has been maximizing privacy protections, and I believe that this forthcoming legislation will have the strongest privacy safeguards of any cyber bill to date,” he said via email.

Schiff and others believe a final deal is imminent.

“I’m optimistic, I think we’re getting closer,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the other cosponsor of his panel’s bill, told reporters Wednesday.

Nunes cautioned, though, that lawmakers may not be able to move a finalized text until an expected omnibus package is hammered out.

Those involved in the talks have suggested they could attach the cyber bill text to the wide-ranging spending bill, which will likely come sometime early next week.

“We’re going to have to wait until we have a deal on the omnibus to figure out everything else, and that’s everything from extenders to any of the riders,” Nunes said.

After House leaders met Wednesday afternoon, Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) introduced a short-term continuing resolution that would give lawmakers another week to wrap up a full-year spending bill.

“It’s our fervent hope to unveil and vote on this [cyber] bill before the end of the session,” Schiff said. “We cannot afford to wait any longer."