Senators announced a bipartisan plan Wednesday to help keep the financially ailing Postal Service solvent and continue six-day mail delivery for at least two more years.
The proposal would lift the agency "from the brink of bankruptcy," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The Postal Service lost $8 billion last year and could report even larger losses when its 2011 budget year report comes out in mid-November.
"We're not crying wolf here" about the agency, said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the committee.
Lieberman said the committee next week would take up the proposal, which also would encourage cuts in postal office staffing and refund agency overpayments to the federal retirement system.
The Postal Service said it welcomed the proposal.
Joining in the announcement were Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., who heads the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Postal Service, and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, the top Republican on that panel.
A separate overhaul plan sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is awaiting action by the full House. Issa said he looked forward to working with the Senate on resolving postal problems.
According to the Senate bill:
_The Postal Service would receive a refund of nearly $7 billion it has overpaid into the Federal Employee Retirement System.
_The agency would be required to use part of the refund to set up a buyout program aimed at reducing staff by 100,000.
_Agency payments of about $5.5 billion into an account to fund future retiree health benefits would be reduced by spreading out the payment schedule.
_The postmaster general could negotiate with unions on a possible alternate health care system that would cost less.
_Mail delivery would have to continue at six-days-a-week for at least two years. After that, if the Postal Service wanted to reduce deliveries to five days, the independent Postal Regulatory Commission would have to verify that other cuts have been made and the savings still were not enough to ensure financial viability.
_The workers' compensation program would be overhauled. Currently the Postal Service has 2,000 workers over age 70 receiving workers' compensation. Switching them to retirement programs could save money.
"Without taking controversial steps like these, the Postal Service is simply not going to make it, and that would be terrible," Lieberman said.
Mail volume is down 22 percent since 2007, largely because of the combination of people switching to the Internet to communicate and pay bills. The recession has discouraged advertising mail.
"Jobs are at stake," said Collins.
The Postal Service is at the center of a $1.1 trillion mailing industry that employs 8.7 million people in direct mail, printing, paper-making, catalog sales, fundraising and other businesses.
Art Sackler of the trade group Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service said the Senate plan was "smart and balanced," while Tony Conway of the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers believe it would "provide needed relief for the Postal Service and ensure the continuation of critically important mail delivery."
Reed Anfinson, president of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of the Swift County, Minn., Monitor News, said the measure "takes a critical step toward a stable Postal Service."