WASHINGTON — A proposed rescue plan for the financially strapped U.S. Postal Service took a step forward Thursday when a Senate committee passed a bill that would end Saturday delivery in the future and make permanent a recent, temporary increase in the cost of stamps.
The bipartisan bill would also restructure the Postal Service’s health insurance program and a $5.5 billion annual payment the agency must make toward health costs of future retirees, two shifts that would cut significant costs.
The bill cleared the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee 9 to 1, with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., casting the lone “no” vote. Tester said afterward that the changes would hurt mail delivery to rural areas and threaten the Postal Service’s mission of universal service. Six senators were absent from the vote.
Thursday’s action follows last year’s approval of a postal overhaul by a House committee. Key differences — among them five-day delivery, which the House bill would allow postal officials to start immediately — will probably be ironed out in a conference committee once each bill reaches the House and Senate floors.
After a vigorous debate, the Senate panel defeated an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would overturn a federal ban on guns in post offices. But the senators approved a measure from Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, that would allow licensed gun holders to carry guns in post office parking lots as long as the state already allows them.
Begich said he wants gun owners to avoid being charged with a crime if they collect their mail at their local post office after hunting and leave their gun in the trunk or back seat of their car.
The Postal Service welcomed the Senate committee vote. The bill “provides the framework to return the organization to financial stability,” the agency said in a statement. “The bill also provides the Postal Service with the necessary flexibility to develop innovative products and services for the American public and to grow the business.”
The vote on the broader bill, after a year of negotiation by the panel’s top Democrat and Republican, however, left two key stakeholders unhappy.
Postal unions said the bill would cut services and thousands of jobs by eliminating Saturday service and shifting mail delivery to the curb from the doorstep.
“Unnecessary and damaging attacks on the Postal Service’s vital networks and its employees — such as those unfortunately included in [the bill] — would only send the Postal Service on a downward trajectory,” Fredric Rolando, president of the largest postal union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, said in a statement.
Commercial mailers, meanwhile, oppose a provision to allow higher postal rates that’s designed to bring the mail agency billions of dollars in new revenue.
“The Postal Reform Act would do serious harm to the Postal Service’s competitive viability by raising rates and cutting essential services,” the Greeting Card Association said in a statement, echoing the industry’s claim that making a 3-cent increase in the price of a first-class stamp and other mail permanent would cause mail volume to plummet.
The bill also would remove some authority from postal regulators to approve rate increases, another provision the industry opposes.
But the committee’s chairman, Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., and ranking Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, said the bill would provide needed relief for the Postal Service, which would run out of cash and be forced to continue borrowing from the U.S. Treasury if Congress does not act.
“I hope the legislation will allow the Postal Service to continue to be relevant and vibrant in the years going forward without being a burden to the taxpayer,” Carper said.
The Postal Service could eliminate Saturday delivery only after mail volume drops below 140 billion pieces annually. Officials have estimated that will happen in 2017 or 2018. Postal officials also would be able to ship alcohol and enter other lines of business that are currently prohibited.