By Diane Bartz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Senator John McCain called on Wednesday for the creation of a bipartisan panel to draft long-sought legislation to combat data breaches and espionage aimed at U.S. companies and defense networks.
"The only way to move comprehensive cyber security legislation forward swiftly is to have committee chairmen and ranking members step away from preserving their own committees' jurisdiction ... (and) develop a bill that serves the national security needs of all Americans," McCain wrote.
Lawmakers have considered several cybersecurity bills in recent years, but failed to pass any.
But the question of how to fight cyber crime and espionage has taken on new urgency in the past year with a spate of high-profile and, sometimes, sophisticated attacks.
McCain said the serious threat of cyber incursions into U.S. networks and companies by foreign governments and organized crime created a need for quick action.
He made his plea in a letter to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. He argued a special panel was needed because seven existing Senate committees and at least three federal agencies have jurisdiction over aspects a comprehensive bill.
The stalled measure is designed to create comprehensive legislation by combining drafts of several previous bills.
But the drafting process has been slow in recent months amid Democratic complaints that Republicans are dragging their feet. Republicans deny this.
Senator Joe Lieberman, an Independent and chair of the Homeland Security Committee, and Senator Susan Collins, the top Republican on the panel, responded to McCain that they disagreed strongly with the idea of a select committee.
"A select committee will necessarily require a restart of efforts that have been underway for years and would wash away the significant progress that the Senate has made," they wrote in a letter, also to Reid and Collins.
BOGGED DOWN IN DEBT TALKS
Lawmakers have spent much of the summer embroiled in negotiations on how best to reduce budget deficits and avoid a default on the national debt.
Frustrated Democrats have blamed McConnell for delays in drafting a comprehensive cyber security bill, saying he had urged Republicans to stay away from drafting meetings.
There have been no meetings on the bill for a month and none scheduled, said two Senate staffers, who declined to be identified. One said the Republicans involved in the effort kept putting off Democratic efforts to meet.
McConnell's office denied the allegation outright.
The bill, which is partially drafted, would allow the president to declare an emergency if there is a serious cyber attack. The president's emergency powers are not spelled out, and there has been tough debate over whether Washington could order affected companies disconnected from the Internet.
The draft also discusses how certain industries -- power companies are a prime example -- might be declared "critical infrastructure" and required to take specified actions to defend themselves against cyber threats.
The bill puts the Department of Homeland Security formally in charge of securing government web sites, and reforms how government networks are secured by switching to a system of "continuous monitoring."
The Pentagon was to announce its new cyber security strategy on Thursday. It was expected to be in line with a legislative proposal for a comprehensive international cyber security strategy announced by the White House in May.
Recent hacking attacks have struck Google Inc and Lockheed Martin Corp, the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier.
The computer break-ins have also targeted multinational companies and institutions, including Citigroup and the International Monetary Fund.
(Reporting by Diane Bartz; editing by Todd Eastham)