Postmaster general says he's pausing changes 'until after the election'

The postmaster general on Tuesday said he would pause changes to the operations of the Postal Service until after the election amid bipartisan outcry, a sharp reversal after President TrumpDonald John TrumpBubba Wallace to be driver of Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin NASCAR team Graham: GOP will confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election Southwest Airlines, unions call for six-month extension of government aid MORE spent days defending the agency's actions.

"To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded," Louis DeJoyLouis DeJoyHillicon Valley: Murky TikTok deal raises questions about China's role | Twitter investigating automated image previews over apparent algorithmic bias | House approves bill making hacking federal voting systems a crime Judge orders Postal Service treat election mail as priority The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - White House moves closer to Pelosi on virus relief bill MORE said in a statement.

The postmaster general said retail hours at post offices will remain unchanged, mail processing equipment and collection boxes will not be removed and no mail processing facilities will be closed.

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On top of that, DeJoy said the agency will employ “stand-by resources,” beginning Oct. 1, “to satisfy any unforeseen demand” surrounding the elections.

DeJoy's surprise announcement comes as his leadership of the Postal Service has received withering scrutiny from lawmakers in both parties voicing concerns about mail delays and changes at the agency. The timing of the changes drew backlash given that voters are expected to heavily rely on mail-in ballots this November due to the coronavirus pandemic.

DeJoy made clear that he still intends to reform the agency, but he’ll do it after the election season has passed.

"I came to the Postal Service to make changes to secure the success of this organization and its long-term sustainability," DeJoy said in a statement. "I believe significant reforms are essential to that objective, and work toward those reforms will commence after the election.

DeJoy, a major GOP donor and Trump ally who took over the role in June, is scheduled to testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Friday.

He is also slated to appear before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Monday, and some members of that panel, while welcoming the new policy delay, also emphasized that they’re still expecting him to appear before Congress to explain the changes.

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“While this is a victory for all voters and every American that relies on the USPS, congressional oversight cannot be interrupted,” Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyJudge issues nationwide injunction against Postal Service changes House panel advances bill to ban Postal Service leaders from holding political positions Shakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' MORE (D-Va.) said in a statement. “If Mr. DeJoy has nothing to hide, he will come to Congress with answers to our questions about the service disruptions that have defined his tenure as Postmaster General.”

The Postal Service warned 40 states in letters late last week that their deadlines to request, return and count ballots may clash with the realities of mail delivery at a time when the agency is already facing financial troubles, delivery delays and an expected influx of election-related mail.

Lawmakers in both parties and voting rights activists have raised alarms in response to photos and news reports of mail collection boxes being removed. Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranLobbying world This World Suicide Prevention Day, let's recommit to protecting the lives of our veterans Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg acknowledges failure to take down Kenosha military group despite warnings | Election officials push back against concerns over mail-in voting, drop boxes MORE (R-Kan.) wrote to DeJoy on Monday citing concerns that delays could adversely affect rural residents who depend on the Postal Service for medication.

The fight over the Postal Service comes as Trump unleashes almost daily attacks on mail-in voting, sowing doubt about its reliability and warning that its widespread use will lead to a tainted election result despite scant evidence that there is meaningful fraud associated with mail ballots. Administration officials have more carefully made the distinction between absentee ballots, which they believe are acceptable, and universal mail-in voting.

Trump has at times claimed the Postal Service lacks the capacity to handle an influx of mail ballots this election season, though DeJoy refuted that himself on Tuesday, saying the agency “is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall.”

The president and some of his allies have defended the recent operational changes at the agency, saying they're crucial for cutting costs and pulling the beleaguered agency, which is facing enormous budget shortfalls, out of the red.

"It’s been run horribly. And we’re going to make it good," Trump told Fox News on Monday. "Now what am I supposed to do? Let it continue to run badly? So if you fix it, they say ‘oh he’s tampering with the election.' No, we’re not tampering."

Trump’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill have rallied in his defense, accusing Democrats of politicizing the Postal Service to gain an upper hand themselves at the polls.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Washington on edge amid SCOTUS vacancy Murkowski: Supreme Court nominee should not be taken up before election Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE (R-Texas) on Tuesday called the criticisms a “political smokescreen” thrown up by Democratic leaders “to advance their policy objective of universal mail-in votes.”

“The problem with universal mail-in voting is it is particularly susceptible to voter fraud,” Cruz told reporters in the Capitol. “And unfortunately, too many partisan Democrats view that as a feature and not a bug.”

Yet critics maintain that the changes, by slowing down mail delivery, would cause havoc surrounding November's elections, which are poised to take place in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic when tens of millions of people are expected to vote by mail for public health reasons.

They have also seized on DeJoy’s financial holdings, arguing his attachment to Amazon and a Postal Service contractor make him unfit for the job.

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With that in mind, House Democrats this week have raced to the defense of the Postal Service, seeking to rescue the staid agency from financial ruin while accusing Trump of "sabotaging" its operations to gain an upper hand in November's elections.

Democratic leaders have taken the remarkable step of calling the House back to Washington this week to vote on billions of dollars in new agency funding; the head of the House Oversight Committee has summoned DeJoy to testify before the panel next week; and on Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers — encouraged by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump puts Supreme Court fight at center of Ohio rally CDC causes new storm by pulling coronavirus guidance Overnight Health Care: CDC pulls revised guidance on coronavirus | Government watchdog finds supply shortages are harming US response | As virus pummels US, Europe sees its own spike MORE (D-Calif.) — staged press events at post office facilities across the country — a concerted political messaging effort designed to stir a public outcry against the administrative changes.

Bolstering the Democrats' cause, the Post Office is perennially ranked among the most cherished of the nation’s government institutions.

Indeed, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in March found that the Postal Service is far and away the most popular of all the federal agencies, winning a favorable rating from 91 percent of voters identifying as Democrats, and 91 percent of those identifying as Republicans.

"They felt the heat,” Pelosi said during a virtual Politico Playbook interview. “And that's what we were trying to do, is to make it too hot for them to handle.”

Cristina Marcos contributed.