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Postal Service overhaul remains tenuous as Rep. Issa considers plans for new bill

– Rep. Darrell Issa may introduce a U.S. Postal Service overhaul bill next week that more closely tracks with a White House plan, a move that the California Republican hopes will help rally more Democrats, congressional aides say.

With the clock ticking on his tenure as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa, the leading House advocate for legislation to overhaul the financially troubled agency, may introduce the bill as soon as next week, when Congress returns from its break.

The new strategy comes as roadblocks in the House and Senate continue to dog a three-year effort to stabilize the Postal Service. The Senate, after painstaking negotiations, passed one postal bill in the last Congress in 2012, but an overall agreement remains elusive.

The agency has lost billions of dollars a year over a decade as first-class mail volume has declined with the rise of the Internet. Postal officials have defaulted on three $5.5 billion payments into a health-care fund for future retirees. Eliminating or reconfiguring that payment would help ease USPS financial issues, agency and union officials have said.

Issa’s committee and its Senate counterpart, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, led by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., have passed sweeping bills in recent months that, to varying degrees, allow the Postal Service to cut some services to reduce costs, innovate more to increase revenue and stretch out its debts to future retirees.

But nothing has had enough support to pass, and leaders of the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House are not inclined to bring them to a vote before the midterm elections, congressional aides and Postal Service observers say.

So Issa, anxious to pass major legislation before his term as committee chairman ends late this year, took a new tack last week. He invited the Office of Management and Budget to testify before his committee on the postal plan in President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget.

Committee Republicans and the administration found common ground on many issues, including allowing the Postal Service to eliminate Saturday letter delivery, removing legal restrictions on its expansion into new products and services and reducing the workforce through attrition rather than layoffs.

They disagreed on whether a rate increase that took effect in January should be permanent, an issue that may be decided by the courts in the fall. The OMB supports making the hike permanent, while Republicans oppose it.

Issa said at the close of the hearing that he would use the administration’s plan, minus the permanent rate increase, as a “good starting point” for a new bill he hopes the administration “would broadly push all parties to embrace.”

His tactic appears to be to drive a wedge between House Democrats and the administration. Many Democratic lawmakers are staunch union supporters who fear that ending Saturday delivery and phasing out curbside delivery - another point of agreement between the White House and many Republicans - would threaten postal jobs.

“More than anything, this should be looked at as a tool,” a congressional aide familiar with Issa’s thinking said of his plan to introduce a new bill. “We just want to get each chamber to pass a bill. Are the Democrats really going to vote in lockstep against the president’s proposal?”

Apparently, many might. Democrats on the committee, who all voted against Issa’s first bill, made their opposition clear last week to many of the administration’s proposed service cuts, and Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said that he has more than 200 co-sponsors on his bill to require the Postal Service to maintain Saturday letter delivery.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, Md., the committee’s ranking Democrat, said in a statement that although he commends the administration for “supporting comprehensive postal reform and offering a thoughtful package of policy proposals,” he hopes “we will focus on measures we can all agree on rather than measures that drive us apart.”

Even if a White House-friendly bill were to pass the committee, any postal legislation faces hurdles in both chambers. For example, some rank-and-file Republicans, particularly those representing rural districts, are leery of service cuts and job losses in an election year.

Postal unions point to recent improvements in the mail agency’s finances as evidence that cuts are not needed.

“Both bills are terrible bills,” said Sally Davidow, a spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union. “We don’t want either of them to go forward.”

The powerful mailing industry opposes language in the Senate bill that would lift the cap on most rates for bulk mail, allowing the increase that took effect in January to be permanent.

“Prospects are not encouraging at the moment,” said Art Sackler of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, which represents large mailers. The bill also would remove some authority from postal regulators to approve rate increases, another provision the industry opposes.

Adding to the hurdles is a last-minute change to the Senate bill that would allow licensed gun holders to carry guns in post office parking lots as long as the state allows them.

The gun rights amendment from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., started as a far more controversial proposal to overturn the federal ban on guns in post offices, but the committee defeated it. Paul, however, said he will try again when the bill is on the floor.

In a statement, Postal Service spokeswoman Patricia Licata said: “The need for comprehensive postal reform is as great as ever, and we will continue to work with Congress to restore the agency to financial viability.”

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