Postal measure clears Senate panel; floor action uncertain

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved a sweeping postal overhaul measure Wednesday.

The measure, introduced by Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., would make the Postal Service operate more like a business, simplifying its rate-setting process and strengthening its governing board.

The bill also gives the Postal Service access to money slated for an escrow account and shifts payment for the agency's military pensions back to the Treasury.

The Bush administration's objections to that language kept a similar bill from reaching the floor of the Senate last year, although it was approved unanimously by the committee. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., echoed the White House's argument, saying the agency had already agreed to pay for its military pensions as part of a law passed in 2003.

But Carper noted that Postal Service officials did that "with a gun to their head." He said Congress intended to revisit that provision.

Coburn also argued the bill does not do enough to reduce healthcare costs for postal employees. Health benefits are negotiated through collective bargaining. Collins noted that the bill has a substantially lower CBO estimate -- $500 million over five years -- than last year's measure, which would have cost $8.5 billion. A Senate aide said this year's bill calls for the Postal Service to set aside more money for health benefits at an earlier date, which lowered the score.

Collins and Carper also offered an amendment, approved by voice vote, to strike language giving the Postal Service the authority to contract with foreign airlines to carry mail, after lobbyists for domestic airlines urged members to vote against the bill if it contained that language.

After the hearing, Collins said she was optimistic about the measure's chances of reaching the floor this year, given its strong support in committee. The Postal Service has said it will raise rates this year if Congress fails to pass the bill.

The panel also approved by voice vote a measure giving OMB more authority to regulate the use of purchase cards, credit cards issued to federal employees to pay for goods and services, and a bill enhancing coordination among federal, state and local agencies responsible for emergency medical services.

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