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The Senate offered a lifeline to the nearly bankrupt U.S. Postal Service (USPS) on Wednesday, voting to give the struggling agency an $11 billion cash infusion while delaying controversial decisions on closing post offices and ending Saturday delivery.
In recent months, USPS has explored consolidating its Hickory processing center to Greensboro and closing its processing facility in Conover. Such changes would affect about 400 jobs.
By a 62-37 vote Wednesday, senators approved a measure that had divided mostly along rural-urban lines. Over the past several weeks, the bill was modified more than a dozen times, adding new restrictions on closings and cuts to service that rural-state senators said would hurt their communities the most.
The issue now goes to the House, which has yet to consider a separate version of the bill.
"The Postal Service is an iconic American institution that still delivers 500 million pieces of mail a day and sustains 8 million jobs," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., a bill co-sponsor. "This legislation will change the USPS so it can stay alive throughout the 21st century."
The mail agency, however, criticized the measure, saying it fell far short in stemming financial losses. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said if the bill became law, he would have to return to Congress in a few years to get emergency help.
"It is totally inappropriate in these economic times to keep unneeded facilities open. There is simply not enough mail in our system today," the Postal Service's board of governors said in a statement. "It is also inappropriate to delay the implementation of five-day delivery."
The Senate bill would halt the immediate closing of up to 252 mail-processing centers and 3,700 post offices, part of a postal cost-cutting plan to save some $6.5 billion a year. Donahoe previously said he would begin making cuts after May 15 if Congress didn't act, warning that the agency could run out of money this fall.
The measure would save about half the mail processing centers the Postal Service wants to close, from 252 to 125, allowing more areas to maintain overnight first-class mail delivery for at least three more years. It also would bar any shutdowns before the November elections, protect rural post offices for at least a year, give affected communities new avenues to appeal closing decisions and forbid cuts to Saturday delivery for two years.
At the same time, the Postal Service would get an infusion of roughly $11 billion, basically a refund of overpayments made in previous years to a federal retirement fund. That would give it immediate liquidity to pay down debt to forestall bankruptcy and finance buyouts to 100,000 postal employees.
The Senate bill faces an uncertain future. The House version, approved in committee last year, would create a national commission with the power to scrap no-layoff clauses in employee contracts and make other wide-ranging cuts.
"This of course kicks the can down the road," complained Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who unsuccessfully pushed for a commission in the Senate bill. He said the current proposal failed to address longer-term fixes and delayed major decisions. "We'll be on the floor in two years addressing this issue again, because it is not a solution."