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Labor, biz united behind postal reform push in the lame duck

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Unions and the business mailing industry, tired of years of stalled efforts on postal reform, are teaming up to try to push through legislation to help the U.S. Postal Service after Tuesday’s elections.

Organized labor and the mailing industry — which includes banks, catalog companies and a slew of other sectors reliant on the USPS — have long had different priorities when it comes to shoring up an agency that has lost billions of dollars in recent years.

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But top lawmakers are pessimistic that a broad postal reform deal can be reached in Congress’s lame-duck session. So, the two groups are uniting behind a narrower deal that would include concessions from both sides and simply ignore some of the most divisive postal issues.

Those advocates say such a deal could stabilize the Postal Service for a decade and has a better shot at passing than any of the broader proposals currently on the table.

“It’s painfully clear that the Postal Service still needs relief,” said Art Sackler of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, which represents the mailing industry. “It’s also painfully clear that the efforts to get postal reform through have simply run into too much controversy.” 

Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to Washington until next week, and the four postal unions and business interests are still discussing their proposals. 

But people working on the issue say that ending Saturday letter delivery — opposed by a majority of the House — and centralizing delivery points would be among the topics that could be avoided.

The proposals would seek to build on legislation from Sens. Tom CarperTom CarperFinancial industry spars with retailers over data breach bill Week ahead: Cyber Command in the spotlight Lawsuit exposes M cybertheft through banking software MORE (D-Del.) and Tom CoburnTom CoburnMcCain: No third-party foes coming for Trump Tough choice for vulnerable GOP senators: Embrace or reject Trump The Trail 2016: Donald and the Supremes MORE (R-Okla.). 

“This is about groups of people united on one thing, to stabilize a critical American institution,” said Fredric Rolando, the president of the National Association of Letter Carriers. “We’re willing to discuss anything that makes sense.”

Potential areas of agreement between labor and the mailing industry include worker compensation, a recent increase in postal rates, settling overpayments by the Postal Service into federal retirement accounts and reducing the burden of required USPS prepayments for future retiree healthcare. 

The Postal Service has now defaulted on four of those required annual payments, each worth approximately $5.5 billion.

Mark Dimondstein, the president of the American Postal Workers Union, told The Hill that labor groups were trying to cut a deal because of their opposition to the leading bills in both the House and the Senate. 

“We are not whining or crying. The unions have been working on a constructive solution,” said Dimondstein, adding that labor was seeking a solution that “would defend the service standards [and] defend six-day delivery, in particular.”

Postal unions are currently lobbying against the Postal Service’s efforts to consolidate mail-processing facilities, which they say would slow down delivery times.

Still, labor and mailing industry officials acknowledge that the odds aren’t in their favor in the lame-duck session. Postal service brass and congressional decisionmakers have met their proposals with only lukewarm interest to outright hostility.

Party leaders in both chambers haven’t shown much interest in broader postal reform during the last two years.

“This is two separate special interests simply throwing giveaways to each other,” Frederick Hill, a spokesman for House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said about the union-industry negotiations.

The split underscores that, some seven years after the introduction of the iPhone, lawmakers and postal advocates are still grasping to figure out how to deal with the Internet’s impact on mail. Issa and Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe have proposed scrapping Saturday letter delivery. But with the USPS’s package business growing, labor interests and some Democrats want to protect all Saturday deliveries. 

The Postal Service’s relatively improved finances — the agency lost $5 billion in fiscal 2013, compared to $15.9 billion the year before — has also reduced some of reform’s momentum on Capitol Hill. And while overhauling the agency isn’t a starkly partisan issue, the inability of lawmakers to strike a deal illustrates the problems Democrats and Republicans have had in passing any substantive legislation in recent years.

Both lawmakers and aides on Capitol Hill are skeptical that any postal reform bill can be enacted before the end of the year. But some aides also say that they think that existing legislative proposals have a better shot than a deal between unions and the mailing industry, depending on Tuesday’s results.

Carper, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, is still pushing for consideration of he and Coburn’s bill, which is opposed by both labor and the mailing industry. 

That bill, Carper told The Hill in a statement, “has the potential to fix the Postal Service’s challenges once and for all. I am hopeful my colleagues in Congress, the Postal Service, and industry can work together to find a better path forward on a number of areas where we do agree in the coming weeks.”

Likewise, the Postal Service appears to favor a broader approach to solving its budget woes.

“We continue to urge Congress to move comprehensive postal reform legislation forward that gives the Postal Service the flexibility needed to meet our customers’ changing mailing and shipping needs and helps return the Postal Service to profitability,” the agency said in a statement Monday.

Even with all the obstacles against labor and the mailing industry, Sackler said he thought the best chance would come from the outside advocates.

“We recognize that we’re climbing up a huge mountain. There’s not much time,” he said. “We don’t underestimate the degree of difficulty in doing this. The difference is that anything else out there has no chance. This at least has a slim chance.”