In a round of unexpected dealmaking, the House and Senate began moving yesterday toward passage of legislation that would overhaul the business operations of the U.S. Postal Service for the first time since 1970.
The measure stalled in September over objections lodged by a union, and one of the chief sponsors, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), held out little hope that a compromise could be reached before the lame-duck session ended.
But key Senate and House leaders, including Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), came up with an agreement, and congressional aides said the measure could be approved no later than today under expedited procedures. Some aides, however, said they were worried that last-minute snags could develop that might sink the bill.
The measure would replace the lengthy and litigious process used to raise the price of stamps for first-class mail and to set rates for magazines and other products, and would free up billions of dollars to finance the health-care costs of postal retirees.
"This legislation will help us avoid disastrous future postal rate hikes and put the Postal Service on firm financial footing for the 21st century," Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said last night.
He predicted the bill would help the post office "survive at a time when more and more people communicate and do business through faxes, e-mail and electronic bill-pay rather than hard-copy mail."
The compromise, congressional aides said, would:
* Create a cap for raising postal rates by linking adjustments to increases in the consumer price index, giving mailers some predictability about postage increases. The price cap would be reviewed after 10 years by a newly created Postal Regulatory Commission, which could modify the cap or adopt an alternative rate system if necessary.
* Repeal a law that requires the Postal Service to make payments, originally intended for postal pensions but no longer needed, into an escrow fund. That essentially would release $78 billion over 60 years, money that would be used to cover retiree health-care liabilities, pay off postal debts to the Treasury and perhaps lower rate increases.
* Put in place a three-day waiting period before an employee is eligible to receive workers' compensation for job-related injuries. The waiting period is a feature of most state workers' comp programs, and at one point had been dubbed a deal-breaker by the National Association of Letter Carriers union. The NALC had no comment. Other federal employees are not subject to a waiting period.
To reach the compromise, House negotiators agreed to keep the waiting period, as sought by the Senate, and Senate negotiators agreed to give way to the House on whether the rate cap could come up for review and possible modification.
In addition to Collins, Waxman and Carper, negotiators on the bill included Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.) and Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), and officials from the White House and Treasury Department, aides said.
Some aides pointed to Carper as a central player in pulling together the compromise by reaching out to Waxman, Collins and White House officials this week.
An Internet site for enrollment in a federal dental and vision program has balked at loading Web pages and "timed out" users, apparently because it could not handle the large number of employees and retirees trying to sign up for the new benefits.
The Office of Personnel Management said, "A late surge of interest in the final week of the open season has slowed access" to Benefeds.com and jammed telephone lines that also can be used to enroll. Employees and retirees have until Monday to sign up for the benefits, being offered for the first time this year.
Robert F. Danbeck, an associate director at the OPM, said, "We are doing everything possible to improve the site functionality and phone access times."
People unable to enroll "due to a cause beyond their control" will be allowed to register after the Monday deadline, he said.
About 325,000 people have signed up for the new dental and vision coverage, officials said.
Paul Michael Brown, a Justice Department senior trial lawyer, will be the guest on "FedTalk" at 11 a.m. today on Federalnewsradio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).
Robert Shea, associate director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, will be the guest on "The IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. Saturday on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).