Senator unsure of postal overhaul's lame duck prospects

A compromise proposal to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service written by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, has met enough opposition from various interest groups that final passage in the lame-duck session is now in doubt, according to a handful of insiders tracking the issue.

"While I remain committed to the goal of passing the bill in the lame-duck session, I do not know if that will be possible," Collins said in a statement. Highlighting the contentious negotiations last week, she explained that "at the eleventh hour, various parties raised objections to some of the bill's long-standing provisions, and these objections caused certain members of Congress to block passage of the legislation."

A pivotal issue is whether the Postal Service should price single-piece parcels based on market forces alongside competitors such as UPS and FedEx, or have those rates set annually by the Postal Regulatory Commission. The Collins proposal -- which was to be the template for a conference report -- has parcel prices set by the commission.

Speaking against the provision, UPS spokesman David Bolger said the mailing giant "has voiced our opposition to it for years." Bolger said the company withdrew its support of the sweeping overhaul bill late last week, noting that "everyone knew this was the one sticking point we had."

Bolger also noted that representatives of UPS and the Postal Service, which did not oppose the provision, worked out a compromise on the pricing issue to be inserted to the bill, but the proposal they submitted to Collins' staff was not considered. He also said Collins' proposal was intended to be introduced last week to prompt a conference and approve a conference report, but that opposition to the pending bill stalled action.

The National Association of Letter Carriers also launched an attack on the proposal last week, spokesman Ron Bergen said, after being notified of a provision that requires postal workers wait three days before being permitted to collect worker compensation benefits.

White House staff had requested the overhaul bill include language to cut down on the Postal Service's labor costs, which comprise 80 percent of its budget. Bergen called the move "dangerous," and in a letter to union members, NALC president Bill Young said that "perhaps after the recess we can reconvene the parties and attempt to iron out the sticking points."

But Ben Cooper, who represents direct mailers at Williams & Jensen, said "the variables in the lame duck are too many to count." The Collins proposal, intended to serve as the conference report, has not been filed, and the House has not appointed conferees. Cooper, who said "the bill would have moved had it not been for the NALC's attempt to kill it," noted that time is running out. "The lame duck is a problem under any circumstances, but you still have Bill Young's opposition, other bills that must be acted on, and an election that could change everything."

Meanwhile, House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., continues to be optimistic about the bill's chances, although he identified the provisions for postal rate increases and workers compensation policies as potential hang-ups. "I think we are conceptually 99.9 percent there at this point. It's a death spiral [for the Postal Service] if you don't make some changes," Davis told a breakfast sponsored by the Council for Excellence in Government and the Washington Post.

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