Post office closures delayed until May to buy time for Congress

The U.S. Postal Service announced Tuesday that it would not close facilities until May 15, giving Congress five months to complete an overhaul of the cash-strapped agency’s operations. 

Facing a projected $14.1 billion loss in fiscal 2012, the agency has said that it was examining whether to close up to 3,700 local post offices and 252 mail-processing facilities. But USPS decided to implement a moratorium on that front after a group of senators expressed concern that the closures could eliminate as many as 100,000 jobs.

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“When it’s all said and done, this is a challenge to Congress: Put up or shut up,” Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber's No. 2 Democrat, said at a Tuesday briefing discussing the USPS plan. “If you don’t like what the Postal Service has put forward in terms of closing processing facilities and post offices and eliminating jobs, come up with a better approach.”

On Tuesday, USPS said it will also continue to move forward with its review of facilities marked for possible closure while lawmakers debate a broad postal revamp.

The Postal Service, which faces plummeting mail volume, had said last week that it is moving forward with reorganization plans that would largely eliminate next-day delivery of first-class mail and perhaps close as many as half of its processing centers. Agency officials said at the time the changes would likely not have gone into effect until at least April.

As consumers have more and more options to communicate electronically, the agency has also said it wants to cut $20 billion a year in operating costs by 2015. Congress has also pushed back a $5.5 billion prepayment that USPS owed for retiree healthcare costs.

As it stands, postal reform legislation has cleared the committee level in both the House and the Senate, and lawmakers working on the issue are hoping their measures will soon receive floor consideration.

With Congress working on pressing year-end issues like the payroll tax cut, Durbin said Tuesday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had promised to deal with the chamber’s USPS legislation early next year.

USPS’s decision to push back facility closures came after more than 20 senators that caucus with Democrats, including Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), last week called on the chamber’s leaders to prevent the Postal Service from closing facilities for six months.

But Tuesday’s move did not go over well with House Republicans, with Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) saying USPS officials had “caved to political pressure.”

“This delay hastens the crisis that is bringing USPS to the brink of collapse and raises serious questions as to whether current postal leadership is up to the job,” Issa and Ross, the sponsors of key postal legislation, said in a statement.

For his part, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), one of the four senators who introduced bipartisan postal legislation in that chamber, said he thought his colleagues' concerns were legitimate.

"Moving forward, I hope that the agreement announced today between the Postal Service and our Senate colleagues can be a constructive step in Congress's efforts to improve the Postal Service's facility closing process and update the Postal Service operations and business model in general in response to the 21st century challenges it faces," Carper, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee that oversees USPS, said in a statement.

Even with five months to hash out final postal legislation, House and Senate lawmakers still have differences to overcome on issues such as whether to allow USPS to move to five-day delivery.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has also said that Congress needs to allow the Postal Service to become more like a business, and that both the House and Senate bills fail to do that. In a speech last month, Donahoe said that, while USPS is expected to act like a business, it cannot adjust delivery frequency or make other cost-savings moves as quickly as competitors like FedEx and UPS.

On Tuesday, Sanders mentioned the $5.5 billion retiree payment as a possible area to address, and said that lawmakers should allow USPS to ship beer and wine, among other opportunities.

“I think the fear that many of us have: If you just cut, cut, cut, you begin the process of what we call a death spiral,” Sanders said at the Tuesday news conference.