WASHINGTON — A cybersecurity bill that had been one of the Obama administration’s top national security priorities was blocked by a Republican filibuster in the Senate on Thursday, severely limiting its prospects this year.
The Senate voted 52-46 to cut off debate, falling eight votes short of the 60 needed to force a final vote on the measure, which had bipartisan support but ran into a fight over what amendments could be proposed to the legislation.
Soon after the vote, the White House released a statement calling the outcome “a profound disappointment.”
“The politics of obstructionism, driven by special interest groups seeking to avoid accountability, prevented Congress from passing legislation to better protect our nation from potentially catastrophic cyberattacks,” the statement said.
The bill’s most vocal opponents were a group of Republican senators led by John McCain, a Republican of Arizona, who took the side of the US Chamber of Commerce and steadfastly opposed the legislation, arguing that it would be too burdensome for corporations.
The bill would have established optional standards for the computer systems that oversee the country’s critical infrastructure, including power grids, dams, and transportation.
In the hopes of winning over McCain and the other Republicans, the bill had been significantly watered down in recent weeks by its sponsors, led by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, who made the standards optional. Original versions of the bill said the standards would be mandatory and gave the government the power to enforce them.
Lieberman, who is the chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and the bill’s other sponsors — including the committee’s ranking member, Senator Susan Collins, a Republican of Maine — have worked for the past several years to pass cybersecurity legislation.
At a meeting last week, Lieberman got into an argument with McCain, his closest ally and friend in the Senate, about his opposition to the bill. Lieberman questioned why McCain was doing the bidding of the Chamber of Commerce and what McCain would say if the nation was crippled by a cyberattack.
McCain angrily said his reputation on national security issues was unquestionable.
The Obama administration had tried to sell members of Congress on the need for the legislation through closed-door briefings from high-ranking national security officials and pleas from officials who had served in George W. Bush’s administration about the looming threat of a catastrophic cyberattack.
Scott Brown, a Republican of Massachusetts, was one of five GOP senators to vote for the bill. His Bay State counterpart, Democrat John Kerry, also supported the bill.
After the vote, Collins said it was a “shameful day” and expressed disappointment with her fellow senators who lacked “a sense of urgency” about a looming cyberattack.
“I cannot think of another area where the threat is greater and we are less prepared,” she said.
The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said, “No one doubts the need to strengthen our cyberdefenses.”
“We all recognize the problem, that’s really not the issue here,” McConnell said. “It’s the matter that the majority leader has tried to steamroll a bill,” he said, referring to Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada.