The U.S. Postal Service's William Street processing center would be able to stay open for at least three more years under postal reform legislation passed by the Senate this week, but that bill -- and the Buffalo facility -- now face uncertain prospects in the House.
Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., announced Thursday that language in the bill means the center would stay open if the bill became law.
But that's a big if, given that House legislation reforming the financially troubled Postal Service takes a radically different approach.
Still, the Senate bill's passage stands as the most encouraging sign in quite some time for the William Street facility, which employs 700 and is slated for closure by early next year.
"The Senate passage of major postal reform [Wednesday] clears a major hurdle towards keeping the Buffalo mail processing center up and running for years to come," Schumer said.
Gillibrand agreed, saying: "This is a step in the right direction for the Buffalo Mail Processing Center."
Schumer's office said it received word Thursday morning from the Postal Service that the legislation would give the Buffalo facility a reprieve.
Only a day earlier, congressional staffers had said the Senate bill would not stop the proposed William Street closure.
But that was before the Postal Service provided its analysis of a provision in the bill that prevents the agency from closing processing centers if doing so would end overnight mail delivery in any part of the region served by that center.
Since the proposed William Street closure would mean that locally delivered Buffalo mail would have to be trucked to a processing center in Rochester and then trucked back again, locally delivered mail would not meet that overnight standard if the Buffalo center were closed.
The reason for that is not so much the shipping of the mail, but the size of the Rochester facility.
A source with knowledge of the situation said the Rochester facility simply isn't big enough to process metro Buffalo's mail, as well as metro Rochester's, quickly enough to meet the overnight standard.
That new standard will prevent the closure of about 100 of the 252 mail-processing centers that the Postal Service has proposed closing.
The bill also would keep open many of the 3,700 post offices the Postal Service planned to close. To pay for that, the bill provides the Postal Service $11 billion in new funding, which is essentially a refund of overpayments the agency has made to a federal retiree fund.
However, the Senate bill is by no means guaranteed final passage.
For one thing, the Postal Service opposes the Senate bill, which passed by a 62-37 margin Wednesday.
Agency officials said throwing more cash at the Postal Service will do nothing to stem financial problems -- including a $14.1 billion projected loss this year -- resulting from dwindling mail delivery in the age of the Internet.
"It is totally inappropriate in these economic times to keep unneeded facilities open. There is simply not enough mail in our system today," the Postal Service's board of governors said in a statement.
For another, the chairman of the committee that's writing the House version of postal reform legislation also harshly criticized the Senate bill.
"While the Postal Service is actually trying to shutter some facilities it does not need, the Senate bill forces the Postal Service to keep over 100 excess postal facilities open at a cost of $900 million per year," said Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The House bill, which Issa's committee has passed, would allow the Postal Service to make dramatic cuts. It would create a commission to determine which facilities to close.
Deep cuts are the only realistic way to deal with the Postal Service's financial crisis, Issa said.
"Worst of all, the Senate bill does not stop the financial collapse of USPS, but only delays it for two years, at best, when reforms will only be more painful," Issa added. "The Senate's approach is wholly unacceptable."
Then again, it's possible the House version of the bill is unacceptable to large numbers of House members who would likely see postal facilities close in their districts under that legislation.
After all, that bill has languished for months without the House leadership pushing it to the floor for a vote, which can be a sign there are not enough votes to pass a bill. That being the case, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said he will press the House leadership to take up the Senate version of the bill.
And even if the House eventually passes something more similar to Issa's proposal, Higgins said, the passage of the Senate bill is a good thing.
"It's helpful in that it provides us with some leverage" to try to negotiate compromise legislation that would save processing centers, such as the one on William Street, Higgins said.
Higgins said, though, that it's possible Congress will not be able to agree on legislation to reform the Postal Service, thereby leaving the cuts it has proposed in place.
"It appears as if the two houses [of Congress] are moving in polar opposite directions," Higgins said.