There were plenty of bipartisan hallelujahs with last month's House passage of a water resources and infrastructure bill — enough so that Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., is now cautiously optimistic about passing a highway bill this summer.
But the GOP leadership's plan to save the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money before the August recess is likely to be more controversial than the water bill — especially if the plan means no more Saturday mail delivery.
According to a memo circulated among House Republicans in the late-afternoon on Friday, leaders plan to spend the next two months ginning up support for a short-term highway bill extension that would also spare from bankruptcy the fund that pays for transportation projects around the country.
The suggested pay-for? Eliminating the U.S. Postal Service's Saturday mail delivery service. On its surface, it doesn't sound like such a bad idea. The quasi-government agency that also finds itself in dire financial straits has been asking Congress for years to pass legislation that would end the six-day delivery mandate, and that request has also been made by President Barack Obama in his most recent budget blueprints.
"A transfer of general funds into the Highway Trust Fund must be offset. Given the limited window for action, we believe it is important that an offset be simple and have the support of the Administration and Congressional Republicans," Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio; Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.; and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., wrote in the Friday memo obtained by CQ Roll Call.
Language to move the postal service from a six- to five-day delivery schedule is included in USPS overhaul legislation being touted by Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
But the Saturday delivery issue has bitterly divided members on both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the Capitol. In fact, it's been the sticking point that's prevented Congress over the past several years from being able to put any expansive overhaul bill on the president's desk to be signed into law.
Members, primarily Democrats, argue that Saturday delivery is part of what makes the postal service still attractive in an increasingly-digital age; they also fear the wrath of the labor committee over the number of jobs that will be lost in eliminating a day's work.
In a statement to CQ Roll Call on Monday, Issa's ranking member, Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., blasted leadership's proposal.
“We need to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, but this plan is just a senseless detour," Cummings said. "The idea that the United States of America should cut a day of mail delivery to fund the construction of roads and transit systems is an absurd accounting gimmick and a leadership failure that I hope Congress will reject.”
Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., who has sought to make overhauling the postal service part of his legacy, released a statement to reporters on Friday with the subject heading, "Return to Sender."
“This proposal from House Republican Leadership is a non-starter. It kicks the can down the road yet again on two pressing issues — fixing the Postal Service and the Highway Trust Fund — and fails to solve either problem," Carper said.
The Senate chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, California Democrat Barbara Boxer, was also displeased with House Republicans' announcement, which comes just days after her panel has advanced a stand-alone, six-year reauthorization of highway bill.
"Republican leaders of the House came up with a strange plan to 'rescue' the Highway Trust Fund for a few months,'" Boxer said in a statement. "Instead of working with Democrats to come up with a sensible user fee which has been the foundation of the Highway Trust Fund, House Republican Leadership proposes cutting back mail delivers to American households.
"This idea is a jobs killer," Boxer continued, "which does not even fund the Highway Trust Fund for a long of period of time to provide the certainty that states, cities, and businesses need."
There are also Republicans who question the idea.
On Friday, the conservative Heritage Action circulated a copy of the GOP leaders' memo and accompanied it with a damning review: "The idea Congress would use a supposedly self-funding agency that cannot pay its bills as a piggy bank to fund another bankrupt, self-funding fund is absurd," said spokesman Dan Holler.
Still, it remains to be seen how closely House Republicans will heed to Heritage Action's inevitable "key vote" against the proposal, should it come to the chamber floor: After all, even the most hard-line conservative lawmaker needs federal dollars in his or her district to maintain local bridges and roads. And Heritage Action recently recommended a "no" vote on the Water Resources and Reform Development Act, and only four Republicans complied .
On Monday, Shuster defended his leaders' Highway Trust Fund plan, saying that it was the most prudent course of action for the time being:
"A long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill continues to be one of my highest priorities as Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman, and the Committee will continue to work towards this goal. “However, there is an immediate need to address the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund and to extend the current surface transportation law in order to prevent a shutdown of transportation programs and projects across the country in the coming weeks. “An extension through May 2015 will provide these programs and projects stability through the critical summer construction season, and provide Congress additional time to work on a long-term bill that will improve the country’s economy and competitiveness.”Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.