The Senate agreed Tuesday to begin debating a broad plan to put the flailing U.S. Postal Service on firmer financial footing but limit the postmaster general’s own proposal to close post offices and cut Saturday delivery service.
Lawmakers voted 74-22 to move forward on the legislation, which would direct the postal service to downsize post offices and mailing centers instead of closing them, cut down on bloated workers’ compensation costs and make it easier for the agency to prepay retiree health benefits - all aimed at reversing years of losses totaling billions of dollars.
Those who wrote the Senate plan say it cuts a middle ground that meets the needs of rural communities while trying to pave a better fiscal path for the future.
“We are at a critical juncture. Without passing legislation, the Postal Service will be unable to meet its payroll perhaps as early as this fall. We simply cannot allow that to happen,” said Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, who is co-sponsoring the legislation with Sens. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, Scott P. Brown, Massachusetts Republican, and Tom Carper, Delaware Democrat.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said last year he would have to shut down hundreds of post offices and mail distribution centers in order to cut costs by more than 25 percent. But the agency agreed to postpone closings until April to give lawmakers a chance to put together their own plan.
The proposal they came up with would also allow postal workers to drop off more mail at central mailboxes, let the agency offer more services such as shipping wine and beer, and direct it to share facility space with state and local governments. Saturday deliveries would only be eliminated if the other measures didn’t achieve enough savings.
Lawmakers said the blueprint accomplishes the needed savings while easing the pain.
“There are a lot of different ideas of how to fix the post office,” Mr. Lieberman said. “Some people want us to make draconian changes right away and I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
Last week, the Government Accounting Office issued a dire warning to the agency in a report showing it may have jeopardized some Americans’ access to postal services by failing to follow a strategic plan when shutting down locations. The agency followed a less-organized route, instead shuttering locations when there was a postmaster vacancy or damage from a natural disaster.
Some Republicans who voted against moving forward on the plan said they prefer an alternate proposal by Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona that would push for stricter cost controls by allowing an oversight board to take steps like breaking existing union contracts.
“The post office is in trouble - no doubt about it. But I just think you’re going to have to be able to sort of break the union hold a little bit,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “The contract they have, they can’t look at costs when it comes to negotiating the salaries, which is crazy.”
The Coburn plan would also allow the agency to default on its retiree health obligations, breaking with a 2006 requirement that it must prepay health costs of future retirees and move more quickly toward a five-day delivery schedule. Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, has proposed similar legislation in the House.
Some Democrats objected to any cuts in the postal service, which employs 8.7 million workers. Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, said he doesn’t agree with squeezing cuts from the agency in order to save it.
“So many of our rural post offices get closed under any of these scenarios, and that’s just not right,” Mr. Manchin said. “Losing one day in Afghanistan would take care of the differences they’re talking about. Let’s get out of the wars we have right now and start to rebuild America.”
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