By Bernie Becker - 12/19/12 01:37 AM EST
Key lawmakers in both parties say the odds of a postal reform measure being enacted this year are growing slimmer and slimmer.
With just two weeks left in 2012, congressional negotiators say they are making progress on a range of knotty issues, in their attempts to offer assistance to the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service (USPS).
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is concerned that there's not enough time to deal with postal legislation without an unlikely agreement on unanimous consent, a Democratic leadership aide said. The aide said postal reform was also a long shot to be included in a year-end tax-and-spending agreement.
“We’re not there yet, and a lot of people outside this group negotiating don’t like what they hear our compromises are,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, told reporters on Tuesday. “And at this stage of the session, if there’s any real controversy, there’s no time to do it, so I’m pessimistic.”
"I don't think it's going to make it," Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), who currently chairs a subcommittee that oversees USPS, added this week. "A lot's got to happen in the next two weeks, and I don't know if the movement's going to be there."
Postal officials have, for months, called on Congress to move quickly and get a bill to President Obama's desk. The agency lost close to $16 billion in fiscal 2012, and currently bleeds millions of dollars a day. It also defaulted on a combined $11 billion on required prepayments for future retiree healthcare in recent months, accounting for around 70 percent of its 2012 losses.
At least one key negotiator on the Hill, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), said he would continue to look for chances for postal reform this year, and that the fact that Congress could be around Washington for much of the rest of the year gave some reason for hope.
“As long as we’re here in session, I’m not giving up on postal reform,” Carper told The Hill.
Lawmakers have been negotiating over delivery standards for USPS, with the agency pushing to scrap Saturday delivery. USPS also wants Congress to relieve the pressure of the healthcare prepayment as well.
But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said that while negotiators had made progress, they had also reached a roadblock over reforming workers compensation standards – a key issue for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
"We've worked out an awful lot of things to where we could have what you might call a mini-postal reform," Issa said Tuesday, joining the chorus of those who said the clock would run out on postal reform this year.
A Senate staffer said that Reid's concerns on timing – and not workers compensation – was the main hurdle for postal reform this year.
If Congress is unable to push through a postal deal, lawmakers will have to start again in January with a different set of players.
Lieberman is retiring and will be replaced atop the Homeland Security panel by Carper, one of the three other sponsors of the bipartisan Senate postal bill. Collins, another of the sponsors, will no longer be ranking Republican on the panel and the postal bill's fourth sponsor, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), was defeated in November.
A source with knowledge of a meeting between postal negotiators this week said that Lieberman essentially passed the baton to Carper at that get-together.
USPS has said that the Senate bill that passed this year would not, on its own, put the agency on solid ground financially. That measure would have given the agency relief from the retiree healthcare payment, and allowed the Postal Service to use an overpayment into a federal retirement fund to ease workers out of the service.
But Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has said that a measure that melded the Senate legislation with the House proposal could be a long-term solution. USPS has asked for the ability to scrap six-day delivery, and negotiators had discussed a proposal in which the service would distribute packages on Saturdays but not deliver other mail.
The House bill, from Issa and Ross, would have paved the way for a control board to take over for postal executives, and for a task force to recommend ways for the service to downsize.
But House leadership declined to take up the legislation before November's election – at least in part because they didn't want to force members to take a politically tricky vote before facing the voters.