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Postal rescue faces uncertain future after Senate OK's bill

In a rare bipartisan election-year success, the Senate Wednesday passed a bill to reorganize the finances of the U.S. Postal Service and stave off for at least two years the closing of hundreds of post offices and postal processing plants. The vote was 62 to 37.

The legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I –Conn., Sen. Susan Collins, R- Maine, Sen. Tom Carper, D- Del., and Sen. Scott Brown, R- Mass., would use an $11 billion refund from Federal Employee Retirement system to pay for buyouts of up to $25,000 to postal workers. If 100,000 of the Postal Service workforce of 557,000 employees were to retire, the agency would save $8 billion a year.

“This was a great day for the United States Senate,” Collins told reporters after the vote. “We showed that we could work together in a fair and open process….”

But the effort to keep the Postal Service from being forcibly downsized faces an uncertain future in the House where the leading Republican on the postal issue, House Government Reform and Oversight Committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R- Calif., has offered a bill very different from the Senate's version. Issa's bill would create a task force along the lines of the Base Realignment and Closing Commission on military bases, which would get rid of redundant post offices and processing facilities.

Collins told reporters that she’d spoken to Issa Wednesday to urge him to move his version of postal reform to the House floor “as quickly as possible so that we can get to conference and produce a final bill.”

Hurt by competition from electronic bill paying and saddled with an excess of facilities even as mail volume has declined by more than 20 percent, the Postal Service suffered a $5.1 billion loss in fiscal year 2011, and did not make its $5.5 billion retiree health benefits payment to the federal government.

Congress’s fiscal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office reported last week that about 80 percent of Postal Service retail facilities are money losers, with revenue too small to cover their costs.

A leading postal workers union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, opposes the Senate bill.

"Relentless downsizing is not a strategy for success, yet the legislation adopted by the Senate targets more than 100,000 jobs and will force the Postal Service to slash services in order to pay unaffordable mandates to fund future retiree health benefits that no other agency or firm in the country faces,” said union president Fredric Rolando after the Senate vote. “This fight is far from over; the nation's letter carriers will work tirelessly to build a Postal Service that can thrive in the Internet age while serving the country we love." 

The postmaster general has agreed to a moratorium on closing any postal retail facilities until May 15 to allow Congress time to pass legislation.