The government's top computer security official would have more authority to shore up the nation's technology defenses under a measure passed by the U.S. House of Representatives late on Wednesday.

The measure would promote the head of the National Cyber Security Division up one level within the Department of Homeland Security, a move backed by computer industry officials who say the government does not devote enough attention to online threats.

The proposal was included within a larger spending bill for the Homeland Security Department that passed by a 424-4 vote.

If the measure becomes law, the 60-person computer security office would no longer be subordinate to the division that oversees efforts to protect power plants, water-treatment systems and other critical infrastructure.

The computer security director would instead report to the undersecretary for information analysis and infrastructure protection, one step below Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

By giving the computer security chief more authority, "we'll be able to recruit somebody who's as smart and tough-minded as (Chertoff) is," said California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren at a panel discussion on Wednesday.

Lofgren, who sponsored the measure, said it had a good chance of becoming law because Homeland Security officials who opposed it last year were no longer with the agency.

Homeland Security is taking a neutral stand on the issue because Chertoff has ordered a re-evaluation of the entire agency's structure, spokeswoman Kathleen Montgomery said.

The U.S. government initially had trouble filling the computer security position when it was created in 2003. The first person to hold the job, former private-sector entrepreneur Amit Yoran, resigned abruptly after slightly more than a year on the job amid reports that he was frustrated with his lack of authority. Yoran was replaced by his deputy, Andy Purdy.

"From a private-sector point of view, we're missing that chief, we're missing that quarterback" to coordinate government and private-sector security efforts, said Paul Kurtz, a former White House official who now heads the Cyber Security Industry Alliance.

Businesses and government agencies have struggled in recent years to secure their computer networks from an onslaught of viruses, hackers and other online threats.