UPDATE D: 2:45 p.m.:
The Senate will not begin debating postal reform until late Wednesday at the earliest, according to several Senate aides.
Senators are slated to vote Monday afternoon on a bill to repeal oil industry tax breaks, a Democratic-sponsored measure that wasn’t expected to earn widespread Republican support. But Senate GOP leaders have told members to vote for cloture in hopes of beginning a days-long debate over tax cuts, energy policy and rising gas prices.
A debate on postal reform wouldn’t begin until after at least 30 hours of debate on the oil tax cut measure ends Wednesday. This means postal reform likely won’t be resolved until after the two-week Easter and Passover recess that begins Saturday.
The Senate embarks this week on one of the most politically treacherous issues it will face this year: What to do about the future of the U.S. Postal Service.
The debate over USPS’s future is poised to pit lawmakers from smaller, rural states against colleagues from larger, more urban areas. It puts close friends Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on opposing sides and sets up labor unions and business groups with vested interests in mail delivery against the reality that more Americans today rely on the Internet than on envelopes and stamps.
The cash-strapped Postal Service sits at the cornerstone of the $1 trillion mailing industry that employs more than 8.5 million people nationwide. The mail agency operates like a private business, but universal mail delivery is a constitutional mandate, making how and when mail is delivered and paid for a congressional concern. The fate of USPS also is tied to the federal budget, because the agency pays into federal retirement and health-care accounts to compensate active and retired postal workers.
The Senate plans to hold a cloture vote Monday to proceed to debate on a bill cosponsored by Lieberman and Sens. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) that would permit the end of Saturday mail deliveries, the closure of thousands of post offices and hundreds of processing centers, allow USPS to raise stamp prices beyond the rate of inflation and explore new business opportunities. In recent days, aides said the bill’s provisions protecting some rural postal locations have been strengthened in order to avoid objections to the bill by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and senators from other rural states.
McCain supports a competing proposal backed by House Republicans that permits most of the proposed operational changes, but would also establish a financial control board to revamp USPS finances.
If approved, the Lieberman-Carper-Collins-Brown plan would reduce the amount of money USPS pays annually to prefund the future health-care costs of postal workers, currently set at $5.4 billion annually through 2016. Instead of requiring the Postal Service to pay such a hefty sum each year, the payments would be stretched out over four decades and the bill would authorize USPS to seek fresh negotiations with its labor unions to further reduce health-care costs.
Many of the proposed changes would lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of postal jobs and future postal workers would enjoy less-generous benefits packages.
The best-case scenario, according to aides, would be to have the Senate vote on postal reform by Friday before the start of a two-week Easter and Passover recess and to have the House consider the issue after the break. A final compromise would be reached by May 15, the day that a moratorium on closing post offices and mail processing centers is set to end. Lawmakers earlier this year requested the moratorium so that they could first vote on proposed reforms.
Americans generally agree that the nation’s mail delivery system needs fixing: A majority favor ending Saturday mail deliveries and closing some post offices to help stem the tide, according to surveys conducted by The Washington Post and other outlets. Customers gripe when stamp prices increase, but many still marvel that most envelopes dropped in a mailbox Monday safely arrive at a destination two or three days later.
But business and labor groups worry the bill could do irreparable damage to an institution they rely upon. The Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service — representing magazine publishers, retailers and other firms dependent on the mail — said last week it would oppose any legislation that permits price hikes beyond the rate of inflation.
The American Postal Worker Union — representing the largest share of postal workers — recently launched a new television ad campaign warning that small businesses will suffer, elderly patients may struggle to obtain mail-order medicine and that hundreds of jobs would be eliminated.
Health-care reform still in focus
As the Supreme Court prepares for three days of oral arguments into the constitutionality of the landmark 2010 health care law, across the street lawmakers plan to hold a series of meetings, news conferences and other events designed to rally support for either side of the debate. Unlike last week however, there are no votes planned on legislation to repeal or weaken parts of the health care law.
Over the weekend during the weekly GOP Saturday morning radio address, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said President Obama was right to seek reforms to the nation’s health care system, “But Obamacare clearly isn’t the answer. And two years after its passage, Americans have now come to their own conclusion: They don’t like it, they think it’s unconstitutional, and they want it repealed.”
Listen carefully this week to how Democrats and Republicans react to the legal deliberations — neither side wants to be heard saying anything considered critical of the high court or designed to sway its decisions.
The House’s agenda
In the House, Republicans plan Monday to introduce a three-month extension of federal transportation funding — a vote at odds with the wishes of the Senate, where members were hoping for swift passage of a bipartisan, 18-month deal approved two weeks ago. But House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) failed to earn enough support for the Senate measure and his own five-year proposal.
On Tuesday, the House is slated to quickly approve an amended version of the bipartisan jobs legislation that it first passed three weeks ago. Senators approved the measure last week and President Obama is eager to sign the bill, which eases access to investment capital for small businesses by lifting some Securities and Exchange Commission regulations.
The rest of the week will focus on passage of the budget proposal unveiled last week by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). The vote will serve as a test of GOP unity on fiscal issues and an indicator of whether any vulnerable Democratic lawmakers are willing to go along with their plans.
Keep an eye also on the buzz around Ryan this week: He told Fox News Sunday that he would have to consider joining the GOP presidential ticket if asked to run for vice president.
Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost
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