ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Secret Service was created in the aftermath of the Civil War. The U.S. Postal Service was written into the Constitution itself. And while the Secret Service has a black eye, the Postal Service is in the middle of an existential crisis. It has been steadily losing business in the Internet age and is now operating in the red. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has given Congress until May 15th to find a way to keep the postal service solvent, otherwise he'll start closing facilities.
NPR's David Welna reports on an effort today in the Senate to delay those cutbacks and shore up the agency's finances.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: 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.
Maine Republican Susan Collins is a chief co-sponsor of the Senate bill to save the Postal Service. A failure by Congress to act fast, she says, could amount to a death sentence.
SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: The Postal Service later this year will have great difficulty even meeting its payroll if we do not act. The Postal Service will max out on its credit that it can borrow from the Treasury if we do not act.
WELNA: Senators were divided over the bill less by party than by the strength of their ties to rural America. Bernie Sanders is an independent from Vermont.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: The postmaster general originally was talking about shutting down 3,700 rural post offices in every state in this country. And I hope that members understand that a post office in a rural town is more than just a post office. That post office disappears, in many cases, that town disappears.
WELNA: Too bad, said critics of the bill. They dismissed it as a futile attempt to preserve an institution overtaken by technological change.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I hope that my colleagues understand we are looking at basically a dying part of America's economy.
WELNA: That's Arizona Republican John McCain. His colleagues rejected the plan he offered 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.
MCCAIN: 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. This isn't even a Band-Aid.
SENATOR JOE LIEBERMAN: This isn't a Band-Aid, this is a real reform.
WELNA: That's Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman. Though he 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 limits executive pay. It refunds an $11 billion retirement overpayment to the Postal Service and directs 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.
LIEBERMAN: 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. We've given the post office two years to essentially prove that it can get back in balance.
WELNA: 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's set to expire next month. It was offered by Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill.
SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: 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. It then sets some clear standards for potential closures.
WELNA: 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 three weeks from today. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.