The move by the U.S. Postal Service to a five-day delivery week would close just a fraction of the $20 billion shortfall already facing the nation's mail service, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs on Wednesday.
While labor unions sharply criticized any move to cut Saturday mail, Mr. Donahoe said it was necessary as postal officials confront a rapidly changing population that no longer uses the mail to pay its bills.
He also said Congress needs to give the Postal Service more flexibility to operate like a business, allowing it to operate its own health care plan while easing a costly legislative mandate to pre-fund retiree health benefits.
"Time is of the essence, and with each day that passes without enacted postal reform further impacts the Postal Service's already dire financial condition," he said.
Perhaps in a nod to polling numbers that Mr. Donahoe said show most Americans understand the cut to Saturday mail delivery, lawmakers at the hearing didn't mount much of a challenge to the plan despite unions opposition.
Still, when asked about the legality of cutting Saturday mail, Mr. Donahoe said he would not implement the plan if Congress decided to oppose it.
"I would obey the law and wouldn't do it," Mr. Donahoe said in an exchange with Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, who questioned whether the Postal Serve had the legal authority to cut Saturday mail as the postal chief proposed last week.
Another critic of the move, Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, said cutting mail services could hurt rural residents in Montana.
"The first thing we've done is cut service, and I think that's the worst thing to do," he said.
But a key Senate Democrat withheld any opposition to the move. Sen. Thomas Carper, Delaware Democrat and chairman of the committee, said in prepared remarks that members of Congress need to "show a willingness to accept change" and help Mr. Donahoe implement "a reasonable plan for reform."
Predicting the Postal Service would drift toward insolvency without legislative reform, Mr. Carper said some might consider such warnings hollow amid years of dire predictions.
"But based on the data I've seen, we have never been closer to losing the Postal Service," he said.
The appearance of two leading House lawmakers from opposite parties pushing for postal reform raised hopes for a bipartisan bill this legislative session.
"We're not that far apart," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, told the Senate hearing.
Mr. Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, testified to the Senate panel on the need for postal legislation along with his Republican counterpart, committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa of California.
Mr. Cummings opposed the Saturday mail cut, while Mr. Issa backed the move. Still, both told the Senate panel that Congress needs to pass postal legislation.
Meanwhile, union leaders insisted that any legislation should rule out cutting Saturday mail. Jeanette Dwyer, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association, said the plan would ruin the Postal Service and abandon Americans who rely on the mail service.
She also questioned polling data cited by Mr. Donahoe, saying postal officials got the answers they wanted by asking questions in misleading ways.
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