Senate postal bill hits a setback

A range of Senate Democrats – many from red states – have serious concerns about a leading proposal to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service, adding a new impediment to Congress’s efforts to get legislation done.

The Postal Service is on pace to bleed more than $20 billion over 2012 and 2013, and top officials there have urged Democrats and Republicans to come together on a legislative fix.

{mosads}But in the latest setback for postal reform, Democrats like Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) say a current Senate bill would do too much to, among other things, slow down delivery standards and eat into USPS’s remaining competitive advantages.

In the face of those concerns, the Senate Homeland Security Committee pushed back a scheduled Wednesday mark-up of the bill, released this summer by the panel’s chairman, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), and its top Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

“There’s probably a dozen things that need to be fixed with that bill,” Tester, a member of the Homeland Security panel, told The Hill before the mark-up was delayed.

Asked if changes would be needed to get his vote, Tester said: “Absolutely. Unequivocally, yes.”

“If you passed one change, that wouldn’t necessarily mean I’m going to vote for it,” Tester added.

Carper and Coburn have both insisted that they want to work with lawmakers in both parties and affected industries to get a bill that all sides can live with.

Industry stakeholders share some of the worries that lawmakers have about the bill, further illustrating the challenge that both chambers face in getting a bipartisan product to President Obama’s desk.

“We’re trying to work with them to build a consensus bill,” Coburn said when asked about the Democratic concerns. “It’ll be whatever it has to be to get out of the Senate.”

After Wednesday’s mark-up was postponed, Carper’s office said the Delaware Democrat wanted to make sure that lawmakers and postal officials and customers had enough time to address their concerns and make improvements to the legislation.
“He remains hopeful that the committee can proceed with a markup on the bill later this month,” a Carper spokeswoman said.

Still, senators on Carper’s panel have widespread issues with the measure as currently written.

The bill would reduce the burden of a required prepayment that USPS has to make for future retirees’ healthcare, a mandate that itself caused more than $11 billion in losses in 2012.

It would also pave the way for Saturday delivery to be limited, after Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe tried to unilaterally move to keep only six-day package delivery this year, and would try to shift customers toward clusterboxes and away from door-to-door delivery.

Tester is concerned that the measure would ensure slow delivery times for letters and other mail products – as are other lawmakers representing rural states, like Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).

Donahoe has already moved forward with a plan to consolidate mail processing that decreased delivery standards in some areas.

“I just think without some changes, it’s going to take the Postal Service in the direction the Postmaster General wants – which is the wrong direction,” Tester told The Hill about the Senate bill.

Sen. Mark Begich’s (D-Alaska) office says the senator believes the measure should do more to protect both rural post offices and postal employees.

McCaskill, meanwhile, believes that the service gives its competitors too sweet a deal when it teams up with FedEx and UPS to make the final delivery on packages.

“There’s a variety of them,” McCaskill said when asked about her issues with the bill.

And Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) thinks the measure would give USPS too much leeway to increase stamp prices and other rates.

The Postal Service is already seeking an emergency rate increase, above the rate of inflation – a move that has angered industries like banks and publishers.

The Senate proposal on rates would just intensify those concerns, said Art Sackler of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service.

That provision, Sackler said, is “totally unacceptable, and if unchanged would put the industry in the uncomfortable position of having to oppose legislation that remains urgently needed.”

The Senate passed a bipartisan postal bill in April 2012, only to watch last-minute negotiations with the House fall short at the end of the year.

But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and others liberals have complained that this year’s Senate proposal isn’t as strong, after they fought for stronger protections last year on delivery standards and keeping mail processing centers open.

House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) pushed a bill through his committee this year – without Democratic votes – that also deals with the agency’s prefunding issues and would allow USPS to move toward ending Saturday letter delivery.

The Oversight panel also passed an Issa proposal in 2011, but the full House didn’t vote on it – in part because GOP leadership thought it would be a tough vote for some members.

Issa and his allies say his proposal would help the agency strike the right balance between cutting costs and seeking new revenue streams, as USPS tries to cope with declining first-class mail volume.

But House Democrats and postal unions say the measure – and Donahoe and USPS in general – are too focused on cost-cutting, and not enough on growing the agency’s business opportunities.


Because of an editing error, this post incorrectly said that some Senate Democrats had concerns about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s postal reform proposal, instead of the leading Senate proposal on the matter.

Tags Bernie Sanders Claire McCaskill Heidi Heitkamp Jon Tester Mark Begich Tammy Baldwin Tom Carper Tom Coburn United States Postal Service

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