- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Senate passed an overhaul of the U.S. Postal Service Wednesday that clears the way for closing hundreds of post offices nationwide, and lawmakers didn’t spare themselves from the pain, agreeing to close five of the seven offices contained in the Capitol complex.

The vote on the overall bill was 62-37, while lawmakers slashed their own offices on a voice vote - giving Washington a taste of the cuts the beleaguered agency is making to rescue it from a financial meltdown.

“At a time when we’re asking post offices and people around the country to suffer the loss of their post offices, I think the very least we can do is show we’re willing to give up some of the post offices around here,” said Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, who sponsored the amendment.

The postal overhaul is an attempt to strike a balance by charting a path to solvency for the agency while avoiding more severe austerity measures the agency itself proposed.

Its goal is to help USPS reduce its workforce by offering buyouts, cut down on bloated workers’ compensation costs and make it easier for the agency to prepay retirement health benefits. It also directs the agency to undergo more analysis before shuttering post offices and would only revert to five-day delivery as a last resort.

Plodding through dozens of proposed amendments Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers added measures capping salaries and benefits for postal executives and ensuring door delivery to those who already receive it, but resisted other attempts to water down the measure.

“This is the way the Senate ought to work,” said Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican who sponsored the bill with Sens. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent; Scott Brown, Massachusetts Republican; and Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat.

But it’s uncertain whether both chambers will agree on a final plan anytime soon. Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, lead sponsor of a competing, Republican-driven bill, called the Senate plan “wholly unacceptable.” His bill, which allows USPS to end Saturday deliveries and requires workers to pay the same health premiums as federal workers, hasn’t yet been scheduled for a vote in the House.

Ms. Collins said she urged Mr. Issa on Wednesday to move the bill along as quickly as possible so the two chambers can settle on a final version in conference before May 15, when the agency’s drastic cuts are scheduled to take place.

Some House Republicans say USPS should be allowed to pursue its own plan, which includes slowing down deliveries, eliminating Saturday services, raising stamp prices from 45 to 50 cents and closing thousands of post offices.

The Postal Service is losing $23 million a day and says it will be buried under a $92 billion mound of debt by 2016 if it continues down the same course. While a plan the postmaster general outlined in February would move the agency from the red into the black two years from now, the Senate plan would also put it on a firm financial footing but at a slightly slower pace.

Lawmakers rejected amendments by two Republicans to ban collective bargaining by postal workers and subject unions to the approval of its members before spending money on political advocacy. And they turned down a measure offered by Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat, to require the Postal Service to maintain its one to three day delivery schedule.

But they accepted an amendment asking the Postal Service to speed up retirement claims processing, which could encourage workers to retire soon, and senators backed studies looking at how post office closings affect small businesses and how congressional regulations can bog the agency down.

They also passed language urging the Postal Service to hold off on its own plans until the House and Senate can agree to a final bill.

“My own hope is that the postmaster will do that,” said Mr. Lieberman, adding, “I hope that he delays and gives the House some time to act and, frankly, I hope it puts a little pressure on the House to act.”