Lawmakers are hard-pressed to save the U.S. Postal Service. Experts don't expect big changes before next elections.
WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) -- There's one thing that turns some Tea Party Republicans into government-job lovers like their Democratic rivals: Their neighborhood post office.
In fact, the U.S. Postal Service's reach into every state and congressional district is a big reason why Americans shouldn't expect Congress to make the drastic changes that the postmaster general says are needed for the service to survive -- especially before the 2012 election.
Bills to save the debt-ridden postal service are making their way through both chambers. Postmaster Patrick Donahoe said last week that both bills delay tough decisions.
But with 557,000 employees, the postal service is among the nation's largest employers, behind the federal government and Wal-Mart. The postal service's 32,000 retail branches top Wal-Mart, Starbucks and McDonald's combined. It's also one of the largest employers of minorities and veterans.
Proposals to cut Saturday service and close underused post offices in order to save billions of dollars have met united opposition from Democrats and many of the conservative Republicans who swept into office campaigning on smaller government.
Republican Rep. Steve King, a Tea Party favorite from Iowa who has called for abolishing the IRS, led a fight to save a mail processing center with some 70 jobs in his home district that was ultimately closed.
King said Monday that he eventually came to understand the Postal Service's position that it needs to consolidate large numbers of mail processing centers. The postal service plans to go from 460 processing centers to under 200 by the end of 2013, according to its 2011 annual report.
"I can't say I'm supportive of the cuts, but I recognize the inevitablilty of it," King said. "The Postal Service is in far worse condition than most of the public realizes."
On the Senate side, Jerry Moran of Kansas voted in committee earlier this month to prevent an end to Saturday mail service, joining fellow Republicans Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Susan Collins of Maine. Moran also crafted a provision to make it more difficult to close rural post offices.
"The Senate bill, in particular, is more restrictive on the postal service than even current law," said Alan Robinson, a Washington-area consultant on postal policy. He blames Congress, unions, corporate competitors and even the Postal Service for not being more honest years ago about resources needed to keep afloat.
Cornell University associate professor Richard Geddes compared efforts to save the postal service to the closures of under-used military bases. In concept, lawmakers support closing unneeded facilities -- just not those in their own congressional districts.
"A lot of these decisions are fundamental business decisions about quality and frequency of service, and they should be in the hands of the executives running the Postal Service," said Geddes, who is a visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "But Congress won't let them do that."
Democrats and unions disagree that Congress needs to give the Postal Service more power to make big cuts, saying that ending Saturday service or door-to-door delivery would "put the Postal Service into a death spiral" and "dismantle" the postal service, said Fred Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers.
In fact, the unions are working with the postal service on a separate set of cuts to save the U.S. Postal Service -- that Congress would need to sign off on -- that could save as much as $20 billion by changing health care benefits for postal employees, Rolando said.
One big change under discussion is a measure that would force retirees and postal employees who are 65 and older off the federal health care plan and onto Medicare.
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