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Senate Passes Plan To Keep Post Offices Running

Hikers arrive at the post office in Caratunk, Maine, in 2011. Some of the rural post offices the U.S. Postal Service may close are relied on by Appalachian Trail hikers for supply drops on their trip from Georgia to Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Hikers arrive at the post office in Caratunk, Maine, in 2011. Some of the rural post offices the U.S. Postal Service may close are relied on by Appalachian Trail hikers for supply drops on their trip from Georgia to Maine.

The U.S. Postal Service is so much a part of this country, it's in the Constitution. And yet with so much written communication now delivered via email, text messages and the Internet, the Postal Service is steadily losing business and operating in the red.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has given Congress until May 15 to find a way to keep the Postal Service solvent or he will start closing possibly hundreds of its facilities. The U.S. Senate passed legislation Wednesday aimed at shoring up the Postal Service while delaying proposed cutbacks. Now the issue moves to the House.

The post office delivers more than 500 million pieces of mail every day, six days a week, to 150 million addresses. Still, that's about a 20 percent drop in the volume of mail it handled just five years ago.

Though the Postal Service is supposed to be entirely self-financed, it's had to borrow $13 billion from the Treasury over the past two years to stay afloat. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a chief co-sponsor of the Senate bill to save the Postal Service, says a failure by Congress to act fast could amount to a death sentence.

"The Postal Service later this year will have great difficulty even meeting its payroll if we do not act," Collins said. "The Postal Service will max out on its credit that it can borrow from the Treasury if we do not act."

Urban Vs. Rural

Senators were divided over the bill less by party than by the strength of their ties to rural America.

The "postmaster general originally was talking about shutting down 3,700 rural post offices in every state in this country," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont. "And I hope that members understand that a post office in a rural town is more than just a post office. [If that] post office disappears — in many cases, that town disappears."

Too bad, said critics of the bill, who dismissed it as a futile attempt to preserve an institution overtaken by technological change.

"I hope that my colleagues understand we are looking at basically a dying part of America's economy," said Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.

His colleagues rejected a plan he offered that's similar to one being considered by the House. It would let a bipartisan commission draw up a list of postal facilities to close, which Congress would then vote on. McCain warned that the Senate's bill won't fix the problem.

"I do know that if it passes, it will be strongly opposed in the other body, in the House of Representatives. If it is passed and signed into law, we will be back on the floor within two years addressing this issue again, because this is not a solution," McCain said. "This isn't even a Band-Aid."

But Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, said the bill "isn't a Band-Aid — this is a real reform."

Though Lieberman and McCain are close friends, the two were sharply at odds over the postal bill, which Lieberman co-sponsored. It would help the Postal Service raise revenues by inaugurating delivery of beer and wine. It would limit executive pay. It would refund to the Postal Service an $11 billion retirement overpayment and direct it to use some of that money to persuade 100,000 postal workers — 18 percent of the workforce — to retire. And Saturday mail delivery, Lieberman noted, would continue, at least for now.

"We do it without an immediate move from six days of delivery to five days, because that's a tough one for a lot of people," he said. "We've given the post office two years to essentially prove that it can get back in balance."

Putting Off Closures

Polls indicate more than two-thirds of Americans favor stopping Saturday mail delivery as a way to save money. But only 12 percent want to see their local post offices closed. By voice vote, the Senate approved an amendment extending the current moratorium on post office closings that is set to expire next month. It was offered by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

"It is going to prevent any closings for one year while the reforms that are embedded in this bill have a chance to begin to work," she said. "It then sets some clear standards for potential closures."

The Senate bill would shut down three of the five post offices serving Capitol Hill. And unless the House acts as well to rescue the Postal Service, and President Obama signs a bill into law, closures of other postal facilities could begin in three weeks.

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David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.