The Senate on Thursday agreed to debate a long-delayed bill to secure the nation’s power grid, water supply and telecommunications system from cyberattack by hackers or foreign enemies.
The Cybersecurity Act of 2012 has supporters from both parties, but it is unclear whether it will garner enough votes to pass in the face of opposition from Republican and business leaders.
They oppose provisions of the proposed law that would give the Department of Homeland Security authority to set standards for computer security at thousands of private facilities such as power stations and oil refineries.
“In its present form,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, “the bill before us would do more harm than … anything else.”
Mr. McCain is one of a number of Republican committee chairmen who backed an alternative proposal, which would make security standards purely voluntary.
After Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, promised to allow an open amendments process, the Senate voted 84-11 to proceed to debate.
The open amendments process means that opponents of the Cybersecurity Act will have a chance to offer their alternative bill as a substitute, and that the chamber gets to vote on replacing or striking the most contentious provisions of the proposed law.
Several Democrats said they would offer amendments strengthening privacy protections in the bill.
The bill’s backers, led by Sens. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, said they had already made major concessions to their critics in the latest draft of the bill.
The changes were “very substantial,” Ms. Collins said. “This shows a willingness to adopt changes. We’re still open to changes.”
The new version of the bill offers market-based incentives, such as liability protection, to owners of vital infrastructure who voluntarily agree to meet government-defined cybersecurity standards.
But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the bill’s most vehement opponents, was urging a “no” vote, even on the revised bill Thursday.
Mr. Reid said floor debate on amendments would take up most of next week.