February 7, 2012 / 12:00 AM / 6 years ago

U.S. senators aim to keep post offices open

Feb 6 (Reuters) - Three senators called for the U.S. Postal Service to reconsider closing thousands of facilities and urged an end to a multibillion-dollar annual payment by the USPS, highlighting debate in Congress over how to reform the money-losing agency.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, and Democratic Senators Mary Landrieu and Patrick Leahy said on Monday that a Postal Service plan to study closing more than 3,600 post offices and about 250 processing facilities would eliminate needed jobs and hurt rural communities.

The leading Senate bill, offered by a bipartisan coalition including independent Senator Joseph Lieberman, includes some restrictions on post office closings. Sanders said he has been talking to the bill’s sponsors about requiring USPS to consider Internet access, cellphone service and other factors before closing post offices.

Sanders said he did not want to prevent the closing of every small post office. “It’s a question of stopping the draconian cuts,” he said.

The bill was approved by a Senate committee in November. Senate aides say the legislation likely will not come up for a vote until the end of February.

The Postal Service has been struggling with falling mail volumes as consumers turn to sending email and paying bills online, as well as high labor costs.

The service, which relies on the sale of stamps and other products rather than taxpayer funding, will release quarterly financial results on Thursday. Officials have said they could run out of money by the end of the fiscal year in September.

The Senate legislation, which would let the Postal Service tap into a surplus in its retirement account, allow it to offer new services, and set up a process for eliminating Saturday delivery, faces opposition from many fronts.

Sanders and other members have called for Congress to end an annual payment covering future retiree health benefits, which the Postal Service could not pay in 2011. The bill stretches those payments out over a longer time frame and reduces the total amount that must be prefunded.

“The Postal Service must be released from the onerous and unprecedented burden of being forced to put $5.5 billion every single year into their future retiree health benefit funds,” Sanders said. He circulated on Monday a letter from the agency’s inspector general backing his plan.

A report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found the Senate bill would cost $6.3 billion.

The bill’s sponsors have criticized the CBO score, which assumes reducing some payments would cause the Postal Service to be less aggressive in cutting costs.

A spokesman for Republican Senator Susan Collins, one of the bill’s sponsors, said it would save more than $18 billion. But some lawmakers could be squeamish about voting for legislation that appears to “bail out” the Postal Service amid the deficit-cutting fervor in Washington this year.

“Our bipartisan bill will put the Postal Service on firmer financial footing and doesn’t leave taxpayers on the hook,” Collins said in a statement. “It’s not a bailout and does not shift responsibility for the Postal Service’s red ink to the American people.”

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