By Bernie Becker - 10/16/11 08:05 PM EDT
A House Republican bill to reform the U.S. Postal Service’s operations is advancing on a partisan basis, while postal legislation is still waiting for a committee mark-up in the Senate.
Still, postal watchers and lawmakers firmly believe that both Democrats and Republicans are treating the agency’s sputtering finances with a sense of urgency, and that the two sides are on the path toward finding a compromise.
“There is a broader understanding of the Postal Service and its problems in Congress than I’ve ever seen before – and I’ve been around Washington for a while,” said Art Sackler, coordinator for the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, a group that includes private sector companies with an interest in keeping USPS afloat. “There’s room for finding a solution that both houses can live with.”
USPS also has yet to pay a $5.5 billion annual prepayment for retiree health care that is now due in mid-November, after being pushed back by the agreement to fund the first month and a half of the current fiscal year.
Postal officials had earlier said they would not meet the original Sept. 30 deadline for the payment.
In fact, Patrick Donahoe, the postmaster general, even told a Senate panel in September that the agency could run out of money altogether by the end of next summer, if policymakers don’t act.
With that in mind, lawmakers have sprung into action in recent months, even though there are wide differences between a measure being pushed by House Republicans and the bills being discussed in the Senate.
“Running out of money, I think, is a real crimp on their operations,” Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said drily.
As it stands, the House is further along in their efforts to overhaul the USPS, with the Oversight and Government Reform Committee having cleared legislation on Thursday without a Democratic vote.
The House GOP measure – which would install an oversight board to recommend post office closures as part of its efforts to reduce labor costs – has drawn strong criticism from postal unions and Senate Democrats as well.
But Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), who chairs the Oversight subcommittee that deals with USPS, signaled that he thought that House Republicans would pass the measure largely unchanged, to give themselves as much leverage as possible when attempting to meld the House and Senate bills.
“I think a lot of it has to be posturing right now, too, because you’ve got a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-controlled Senate,” Ross, a freshman representative, told The Hill. “So the two have got to meet somewhere, and that’s where I think the bipartisanship will come out of this. But until we get to that point, I think you’ve got to posture.”
“I think they’re perhaps trying to strengthen their bargaining position,” said Lynch, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy.
On the other side of the Rotunda, Senate sources say a bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to hash out a consensus USPS bill, with the goal of a Senate Homeland Security Committee mark-up either this month or in early November.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee that oversees USPS, also signaled this week that one possible area of consensus was a $6.9 billion overpayment that USPS is generally believed to have overpaid into a federal retirement program.
Officials have discussed possibly using those funds to entice fully vested Postal Service employees into their retirement, which would help the agency downsize its labor costs.
In a statement, Carper said that, with the retiree health payment now due in November, “we have some much needed breathing room to develop a robust reform package that will address the Postal Service’s short and long-term financial challenges.”
Still, officials from both sides of the aisle expect that health care payment to get pushed back at least once more, as they continue to negotiate over the Postal Service’s future.
Policymakers are also trying to put USPS on the supercommittee’s radar, with the Obama administration, House Oversight and Senate Homeland Security all including postal reforms in their recommendations to the deficit panel.
For his part, Ross says that, if the postal reform measures move through the regular legislative process, he hopes to be ready to merge the House and Senate bills by the first of next year.
The Florida Republican is also confident that, while there will likely be bumps along the way, the two parties and chambers can come together on the issue.
“Every one of us has to go back home and answer to our constituents, who are looking at post offices being closed, who are looking at delivery days being changed,” Ross said. “That is immediate.”