WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Senate voted last week to restructure the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service, acting weeks before the agency is scheduled to begin closing thousands of post offices.
Senators voted 62-37 for a bill to help the Postal Service shed payroll and restructure billions of dollars it sets aside for future retirees.
It would allow the agency to tap $11 billion in overpayments to one of its pension funds, and use the money to offer incentives for as many as 100,000 workers to retire, about 18 percent of its workforce.
At the same time, it put on hold for at least a year a plan by Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe to cut $22 billion in operating costs in part by closing 3,700 post offices and consolidating as many as 252 of the nation’s 460 mail processing centers.
The bill requires the Postal Service to continue overnight delivery for some first class mail. It also delays a plan to terminate Saturday mail, but allows the agency to keep the idea on the back burner if other strategies don’t cut costs in the next two years.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., one of the bill sponsors, said it would “change the USPS to it can stay alive throughout the 21st century.” But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the bill only “kicks the can down the road,” predicting the Postal Service will be back before Congress in two years.
Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both D-Wash., voted for the bill.
The postal service had agreed to delay post office closings until May 15 to give Congress time to pass a solution.
The Republican-controlled House was expected to consider a bill that, among other things, would establish a commission that could alter employee contracts and guide post office closings without interference from lawmakers.
Student Loan Bill Passed
The House by a slim margin passed a $5.9 billion bill that would prevent the interest rate on student loans from doubling this summer, but not before a partisan fight over how to pay for the subsidy.
Lawmakers voted 215-195 to keep the loan rate at 3.4 percent for at least another year. It would be paid for by eliminating the Prevention and Public Health Fund that provides grants for obesity, tobacco use and heart disease prevention.
Republicans described the fund, created by the 2010 health care overhaul, as a “slush fund” that already was reduced earlier this year by $5 billion to offset cuts in payroll taxes.
The White House said President Barack Obama would veto the bill because of the offset, and Democrats charged it was part of a GOP “war on women.”
Senate Democrats were preparing a bill that maintain the low interest rate on student loans by closing a loophole that allows people making more than $250,000 to avoid Medicare taxes on earnings.
Without action, the loan rate is set to double to 6.8 percent on July 1. About 7.5 million undergrads benefit from Stafford loans.
The House vote fell largely along party lines. Thirty Republicans voted against it while 13 Democrats voted for it.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., voted for the bill. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., voted against it.
Domestic Abuse Law Extended
Voting 68-31, the Senate reauthorized the statute that funds domestic abuse programs and provides legal tools for law enforcers to pursue cases of sexual violence.
Renewal of the Violence Against Women Act for another five years, at $659 million a year, was expected but was not without controversy. While not disputing the purpose of the bill, some Republicans protested against what they called “politically polarizing” provisions inserted by Democrats.
Among them a section offering visas to illegal immigrants seeking protection from abuse, and also expands domestic abuse protections for gays and lesbians.
It also gives American Indian tribal prosecutors and courts powers to pursue abuses alleged to have been committed on reservations by non-natives, an authority that Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said was unconstitutional.
Cantwell and Murray voted for the bill.
Cybersecurity bill passed
The House voted 248-168 to permit Internet providers, other private companies and the government to share information in a bid to deter cyberattacks.
The White House threatened Obama would veto the bill, charging it does not sufficiently protect individuals’ privacy
The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA, allows companies to voluntarily share threat information with the government, and for Uncle Sam to reciprocate.
Critics said there is little in the bill to deter potential abuses, and Rep Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said it would create a “‘Wild West’ of information sharing.” Supporters said the bill does not allow the government to monitor networks or read personal emails, and companies are encouraged to delete personal data before sharing.
Dicks and Herrera Beutler voted for the bill.