House GOP rolls out new postal bill

House Republicans rolled out new legislation on Friday to overhaul the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service (USPS), further moderating their previously partisan bill.

Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) cast his bill, introduced with two other GOP lawmakers, as a compromise that would protect rural postal access and incorporated suggestions from both parties. The Oversight panel is scheduled to mark up the bill on Wednesday.

“The commonsense reforms in this legislation will restore the United States Postal Service to long-term financial solvency while maintaining high-quality universal service for all Americans,” Issa said in a statement.

Issa released a discussion draft on postal reform last month, in an early signal that the California Republican was searching for a broader base of support after his postal bill languished during the last Congress.

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In the legislation released Friday, the Republicans scrapped a provision that would force USPS to reopen discussions with unions on collective bargaining agreements already in place – a particular sore spot among Democrats and unions.

It would also allow the Postal Service to skip required prefunding payments for future retirees until 2016, while seeking to limit the closure of rural post offices.

“Rural Americans and USPS employees have expressed concern that the burden of cost-cutting reforms will fall disproportionately on their shoulders,” Issa said. “We have taken steps to address these concerns because there is no question these populations will be among those most severely affected by a financial collapse of USPS.”

Some GOP lawmakers representing rural districts had balked at Issa’s previous proposal, at the same time the agency was defaulting on two of those required prepayments last year.

The $11.1 billion in losses on those defaults accounted for more than two-thirds of the agency’s overall $15.9 billion in red ink in fiscal 2012. Issa’s new bill would also allow the USPS to calculate the prefunding on a more actuarial basis.

Reps. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), the current chairman of the Oversight subcommittee with jurisdiction over the USPS, and Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), who led that panel in the last Congress, joined Issa on the bill.

Democrats have said in recent weeks that they believe Issa is taking less of a hard-line approach on the Postal Service.

But Friday, Democrats on the Oversight panel added that because they considered Issa’s original measure so extreme, the Republicans might not get much credit for shifting away from some of their ideas.

“I think some of the things they were proposing were ridiculous,” Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass) said Friday. “But I’m still not sure how serious they are.”

“I’ll say it’s better than it was,” Lynch added.

Key lawmakers in both chambers and both parties have continued to talk about postal reform this year, after last-minute negotiations at the end of 2012 fell short. The Senate passed a bipartisan postal bill in April 2012, but the House never brought Issa’s bill to the floor.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has, for more than two years now, urged the two chambers to come together to help the agency bridge a shortfall that the USPS estimates will grow to some $20 billion annually in the coming years.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, has said he hopes to come together on a bipartisan bill as well.

Still, some of Issa’s proposals also underscore the challenge lawmakers face in finding that bipartisan agreement. Lawmakers will also have to try to push ahead at the same time Congress is dealing with priorities like immigration reform.

The California Republican is embracing a proposal — pushed by Donahoe — that would allow the agency to get rid of letter delivery on Saturday while keeping package delivery, a growing part of the USPS’s business.

Some Democrats and unions have said that scrapping any part of six-day delivery would eat into one of the agency’s competitive advantages.

Issa’s bill would also install a new chief innovation officer to help the agency find new revenue streams, phase out door-to-door delivery of mail in favor of centralized clusterboxes and use surpluses in postal pension systems to safeguard other benefits.

The measure does let certain residents keep to-the-door delivery and allows others to maintain that service for a fee. Issa had previously backed away or changed proposals that would have basically placed the agency into receivership if it didn’t pay its bills and created a commission to get rid of unnecessary post offices.