Dispute among Senate Dems threatens postal reform before May 15 deadline

A disagreement over tactics in the Senate could derail efforts to avert the closure of hundreds of mail-processing centers and rural post offices around the country.

Congress will have only a month after the two-week April recess to pass legislation before a moratorium on post office closures expires on May 15.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had planned to bring legislation to the floor this past week to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service to minimize the impact on mail delivery, but he cannot round up enough votes in his caucus.

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Reid in recent days has worked out a deal with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a vocal advocate of stopping cuts in service planned by the postal service, to advance the legislation, but two key Democratic senators — Max Baucus (Mont.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) — are holding out for more.

The fight could make it tough for the Senate to pass the postal reform bill and win approval from the House before the five-month moratorium on closing post offices expires.

“The debate is on cloture. On cloture we split. Bernie was recommending we support cloture because we got some pretty good language and Merkley and Baucus want to get more specific language and stronger language before they support cloture,” said a Democratic senator familiar with the internal debate.

Reid must round up 60 votes to bring the bill to the Senate floor — known as invoking cloture — before the senators can debate amendments to change it. But even that preliminary step is proving a high hurdle.

Sanders has persuaded Reid to accept a manager’s amendment that would implement a blue-ribbon commission to study ways to make the postal service profitable, according to a Senate aide. That and other changes have satisfied his concerns enough to let the debate proceed, but Baucus and Merkley have balked because the legislation could still allow for hundreds of post offices to close.

Julie Edwards, a spokeswoman for Merkley, said her boss “has been working with Sen. Baucus and Sen. [Jon] Tester [(D-Mont.)] and others on legislation that would prohibit the postal service from closing a post office that is more than 10 miles away from the nearest facility.”

Edwards said constituents in rural Oregon would be hit hard by the cutbacks in postal service allowed under legislation that Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has crafted.

“People might have to drive 20 or 30 miles to get to another post office,” she added.

An aide to Baucus said, “Sen. Baucus believes the underlying bill simply does not do enough to keep rural post offices and processing centers open, and he has yet to see actual legislative text of the substitute — he can’t evaluate whether it will work for Montana until he’s seen it.”

Senators struck an agreement with the postal service in December to delay the closure of mail processing centers to give Congress time to address looming insolvency.

Reid’s bid to bring Lieberman’s bill to the floor Tuesday fell nine votes short. Most Senate Republicans and a handful of Democrats, including Baucus, Merkley and Sens. Ben Cardin (Md.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.) and Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) voted against proceeding.

The postmaster general has floated a plan that would close more than 3,000 post offices and 200 mail processing centers. It would end overnight delivery standards for first-class mail; eliminate Saturday delivery; end no-layoff clauses in collective bargaining agreements and eventually reduce the postal service’s workforce from 550,000 to 330,000.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe says he needs $20 billion in savings by 2015.

Sanders argues the cuts in service are not necessary if Congress changes rules requiring the postal service to prefund its retirement fund.

Sanders notes the fund totals $44 billion and earns 4 percent interest per year, enough to subsist without additional payments while the postal service examines strategies to increase profitability.

Democratic senators from rural states have opposed Lieberman’s postal reform bill because they believe it would not do enough to stop reductions in service.

Senate Democrats expected to consider the legislation in February, but wrangling over its content has repeatedly delayed it. Now Congress will have to race to finish work by May 15.