Lame Duck

Lawmakers Scramble to Finish Postal Service Fix

By Bernie Becker – 11/18/12 06:00 AM ET

With six weeks left in the current Congress, lawmakers are racing to finish legislation overhauling how the struggling U.S. Postal Service operates.

Top members in both the House and the Senate met to try and carve out a path forward on Thursday, the same day the mail agency announced a record $15.9 billion loss in fiscal 2012.

The hope for those lawmakers is that, after working on shoring up USPS for much of the last two years, they can wrap up the issue before starting a new session.

“The American people depend on USPS,” Leslie Phillips, a spokeswoman for the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told The Hill in an e-mail. “So I think the motivation is there to achieve agreement.”

But at the same time, lawmakers have been divided for months on some of the central questions in postal reform, and some top members are sounding more pessimistic about the chances for a lame-duck deal.

Members working on legislation have yet to spell out compromises on issues like how to fund future retirees’ health care, and will also be looking to hammer out a postal agreement at the same time much of Washington is concentrating on the mix of spending cuts and tax hikes known as the fiscal cliff.

With all that in mind, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, told The Hill that there was a “50-50” shot that this Congress would push through postal reform.

“It’s a steep hill to climb,” Cummings said. “We have some agreement on some issues, and others are much more complicated. So it’s going to be a matter of whether we can work through some of the more complicated issues in a timely fashion.”

Still, Cummings, and staffers for lawmakers working on the issue, have noted that the current lame-duck session could produce a broad tax-and-spending package that a postal reform measure could be tacked onto – the sort of must-pass measure that might not be available early next year.

“We have not gotten that far,” Cummings said. “But it would be logical.”

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, in announcing his agency’s 2012 losses, pleaded with Congress on Thursday to pass a postal revamp before the end of the year, no matter how they get it done.

“They need to do the right thing, and get this legislation passed,” Donahoe told reporters on Thursday. Donahoe has said that, with mail volumes declining, USPS needs to cut $22.5 billion from its annual balance sheet by 2016.

Postal officials have urged Congress to allow them to cut Saturday delivery, and to ease a requirement forcing the service to make prepayments for future retirees’ healthcare. USPS defaulted on $11.1 billion worth of those payments in 2012, accounting for roughly 70 percent of the year’s losses.

A Senate postal bill, sponsored by senior members of the Homeland Security panel, would make those payments more manageable, and Donahoe has urged that provision to be included in any final postal deal.

The postmaster general also sounded open on Thursday to a compromise under which USPS would deliver packages – a growing part of the agency’s business, due to the surge in online shopping – for six days, while other mail would not be delivered on Saturday.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and one of the lawmakers in the Thursday postal meeting, has also offered that idea.

But some liberal lawmakers and postal unions have pushed back against any attempts to limit six-day delivery, saying it would make bad business sense for the Postal Service to give up any competitive advantage as it moves forward.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), both senior Homeland Security members, also attended this week’s meeting on postal issues.

“This group was meeting earlier in the fall in an effort to find a resolution to the postal service’s fiscal crisis,” Emily Spain, a spokeswoman for Carper, told The Hill on Friday. “Yesterday’s meeting was a productive part of that effort and while more work remains he still believes that a solution to this serious but solvable problem can be found.”

For his part, Issa has suggested for months that the interested members in both chambers should find pockets of agreement before the House passed a bill, to make it easier for the measure to make it to the president’s desk.

Issa’s House Oversight Committee passed a measure, which included a control board that would have potentially taken over for USPS leadership, without any Democratic votes in October 2011.

But the full House has yet to take up Issa’s bill, with the legislation being pushed off until after November’s election at least in part because GOP leaders thought it would be a tough vote for some in the rank-and-file.

The California Republican has also repeatedly criticized the Senate measure, saying it wouldn’t give the Postal Service long-term stability. The Senate bill would allow USPS to find new revenue streams, and also ways to incentivize workers into retirement.

“If you’re trying to get something done before the end of the year, “ Cummings said, “you almost have to do it in a way whereby you’re pretty much passing the same bill.”

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