(Reuters) - Lawmakers will fight to save post offices and other U.S. Postal Service facilities from closure as the Senate gears up to vote on amendments to a bill to overhaul the struggling mail agency.
The Postal Service has been losing billions of dollars each year as Americans increasingly communicate online. Barring drastic changes, officials have said, the mail agency could face annual losses of $18 billion by 2015.
The Senate plans to begin voting on Tuesday on amendments to a bipartisan bill that would allow the agency to tap into a retirement-fund surplus and end Saturday delivery after two years.
But rural-state lawmakers argue that the bill does not do enough to scale back the Postal Service's plans to close thousands of money-losing post offices and hundreds of mail processing facilities starting in mid-May.
The desire to protect beloved postal facilities and jobs in their states has led some lawmakers to threaten voting against the bill, indicating a potentially tricky path forward for postal legislation.
"At this point in time, I would have a difficult time supporting the bill unless we do some things to help protect rural areas in this country," Democratic Senator Jon Tester told reporters last week.
The Postal Service lost more than $3 billion in its most recent quarter, much of it due to a massive payment for future retiree health benefits. The agency says its costs are too high, and mail volumes too low, to justify the current number of post offices and processing centers.
The Senate bill spreads the retiree payments out over a longer time frame and requires the agency to deliver mail on Saturdays for two more years. A manager's amendment approved by its authors creates tougher guidelines for closing post offices and temporarily blocks the Postal Service from ending overnight mail delivery.
But it faces a tough road. The Senate currently is considering nearly 40 amendments, although a Senate aide said many would not receive votes. The final bill must clear a tough 60-vote hurdle to move to the U.S. House of Representatives. And even if it gets there, the bill differs considerably from the leading House plan.
Senators have offered amendments on a wide range of issues, from workers compensation changes to reducing the number of post offices in the Capitol.
One amendment requires the Postal Service to move to five-day mail delivery, while another would force it to keep Saturday mail for the foreseeable future.
The bill's authors, Democrat Thomas Carper, Republicans Scott Brown and Susan Collins, and Independent Joe Lieberman, have said their bill already addresses many of the issues in the amendments and reiterated that the Postal Service will continue losing money without major change.
"If we fail to act ... the Postal Service will not survive as we know it," Collins said on the Senate floor on Monday.
Protecting postal facilities
Many of the amendments under consideration would offer more protections for postal facilities.
Tester's amendment would require the Postal Service to consider additional factors before closing a post office, including how an affected community would prefer to receive postal services.
Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican, would create restrictions for processing centers, requiring the agency to develop a plan to reduce capacity without closing the site.
Senator Claire McCaskill would place a two-year moratorium on rural post office closings, and fellow Democrat Michael Bennet would establish a position for an advocate who would represent rural communities when the Postal Service sought to close post offices and processing centers.
Not every lawmaker supports this approach. Republican Senator John McCain backs an amendment that would create an oversight group to close post offices, similar to a provision in the leading House of Representatives bill.
McCain also has criticized the Senate bill's two-year delay before ending Saturday mail delivery. "That's one of the favorite tactics around here, is more studies," he said in a speech on the Senate floor last week.
(Reporting By Emily Stephenson; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)