The Senate this week will take up legislation that would prevent the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service from closing hundreds of local post offices and require it to continue Saturday and overnight mail delivery.
Post office officials have been threatening to start shutting down postal facilities and reducing service as a way to close an $8.3 billion budget gap they say resulted from the increasing number of people now paying bills and conducting other business over the Internet.
The Postal Service said Congress needs to act by May 15 or it will start closing local post offices and mail processing centers.
The Postal Service's proposal to end Saturday mail delivery would require congressional approval. But while House Republicans support that, Senate Democrats do not.
Instead, senators proposed sweeping legislation that would delay closures and require the continuation of overnight and Saturday mail delivery for at least two years.
To reduce the Postal Service costs, lawmakers proposed giving the agency access to $11 billion in excess cash in its pension fund and requiring it to offer employees buyouts to reduce its payroll expenses. The legislation also would allow the service to scrap its costly employee health care plan and replace it with a cheaper but "adequate" program.
"There's no question that because the post office is running big deficits, up to about $13 billion over the last two years, there's got to be economizing and we've got to look at a different business model," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., one of the bill's sponsors. "But to draw and easy conclusion that, in the age of the Internet, the post office and the Postal Service don't have a role to play and are not playing a role anymore is just wrong."
Senators are particularly eager to block the closure of hundreds of rural post offices, which often serve as a lifeline for isolated communities, particularly those that lack access to broadband or high-speed Internet.
"As Americans, we need our rural communities to stay in touch with the rest of this great nation," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
The proposed legislation would not prohibit the Postal Service from closing facilities, but it would give communities a say in which facilities are closed and the right to appeal any closures. Manchin, however, is offering an amendment to the legislation that would prevent any closures for two years.
"In communities where people were told their post offices down the road might be closed, I'm hearing fears of unacceptable consequences, problems receiving important checks and other financial services," Manchin said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate will vote on the postal bill and its amendments Tuesday, but there is no guarantee Congress will complete work on the legislation by the time the Postal Service wants to begin closing facilities in May.
The Republican-run House is considering legislation very different from the Democratic Senate's. The House bill would create a commission that would close post offices and propose other cost-saving reforms and allow the Postal Service to end Saturday delivery.
"Congress can't keep kicking the can down the road on out-of-control labor costs and excess infrastructure of USPS and needs to implement reforms that aren't a multibillion-dollar, taxpayer-funded bailout," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sponsor of the House measure.