WASHINGTON — The House interrupted its summer recess on Saturday for a rare weekend session to approve legislation blocking cost-cutting and operational changes at the Postal Service that Democrats, civil rights advocates and some Republicans fear could jeopardize mail-in ballots this fall.
The measure, put forward by Democratic leaders, would also require the Postal Service to prioritize the delivery of all election-related mail and grant the beleaguered agency a rare $25 billion infusion to cover revenue lost because of the coronavirus pandemic and ensure it has the resources to address what is expected to be the largest vote-by-mail operation in the nation’s history.
Democrats were joined by 26 Republicans in voting yes, passing the legislation 257 to 150, with more than 20 Republicans not voting. But the bill, as written, appeared unlikely to move through the Republican-controlled Senate. President Trump opposed the measure in last-minute tweets, calling it a “money wasting HOAX” by Democrats.
Democrats framed Saturday’s action as an emergency intervention into the affairs of an independent agency to protect vital mail and package services that have seen significant delays this summer as the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, moved swiftly to cut costs to close a yawning budget gap. They said it was also necessary to instill confidence in American voters that the agency would safeguard their ballots despite near daily attacks by Mr. Trump on mail-in voting.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York and the lead author of the bill, said, as she released Postal Service statistics documenting the slowdown in delivery since early July. “It makes absolutely no sense to impose these kinds of dangerous cuts in the middle of a pandemic and just months before the elections in November.”
Most Republicans in the House opposed it after Mr. DeJoy, facing intense backlash and with the vote looming, announced this week that he would temporarily halt the removal of blue mailboxes and sorting machines, as well as changes to post office hours and to mail delivery operations until after Nov. 3 out of an abundance of caution.
In testimony before the Senate on Friday, Mr. DeJoy reiterated that pledge and said ensuring successful mail-in voting would be the agency’s “No. 1 priority.” He called Democrats’ assertion that he was working with Mr. Trump to hinder the program “outrageous” and testified that he planned to continue the agency’s practice of prioritizing election mail.
He is scheduled to testify again on Monday before the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
The decision to recall lawmakers back to the Capitol underscored just how high the political and electoral stakes have become around the operations of a usually humdrum federal service, especially in the eyes of Democrats. Even if it does not become law, they reason, the vote will help elevate the issue in the eyes of regular Americans and further tarnish Mr. Trump.
“Don’t pay any attention to what the president is saying because it’s all designed to suppress the vote,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said before the vote.
Postal leaders have been warning for months that the sharp decline in mail caused by the pandemic could jeopardize the solvency of an agency that has struggled to turn a profit. But Mr. DeJoy, a Trump donor and former logistics executive, introduced measures to cut down on transportation costs and overtime this summer, leading to substantial delivery delays of vital items like medicines, checks and even chicks. Democrats and postal unions began to caution that the Trump administration may be moving to destabilize the Postal Service during an election year and aid its private competitors because of the president’s animus against mail-in voting.
In his tweets on Saturday, he said the Postal Service did not need the money, despite its outstanding request to Congress for the funds, and repeated false claims that voting by mail is fraudulent.
He accused Democrats of backing a universal vote-by-mail “scam” in “violation of everything that our Country stands for.”
Voting by mail is neither new, a scam, nor at risk of widespread fraud, as Mr. Trump insists. Millions of Americans in conservative and liberal states alike cast their ballots through the Postal Service in 2016 and 2018. Mr. Trump plans to do so this year, but makes a distinction between absentee voting through the mail and programs overseen by Republicans and Democrats that proactively send ballots to all voters.
Adding to some lawmakers’ worries, Mr. DeJoy’s changes coincided with the long-planned removal of hundreds of blue postal collection boxes across the country and the decommissioning of mail-sorting machines, part of a regular practice to adjust to the steady decline of mail.
Many Republican lawmakers have joined Democrats in voicing concern over the slowdowns and demanding assurances from Mr. DeJoy and others that the Postal Service will be able to carry out the vote-by-mail initiatives.
Among the Republicans bucking their leadership on Saturday were moderates, representatives of heavily rural districts that rely on the mail for basic services and several lawmakers fighting for re-election this fall.
“We should be preserving and enhancing U.S.P.S. delivery standards and services, not implementing operational changes that could delay delivery times and undermine quality services that every American depends on,” said one of them, Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, Republican of Pennsylvania.
More conservative Republicans and allies of Mr. Trump accused Democrats of continuing to fan hyperbolic and unsupported theories of a conspiracy overseen by Mr. Trump to sabotage the election for their own political gain.
“Like the Russia hoax and the impeachment sham, the Democrats have manufactured another scandal for political purposes,” said Representative James Comer of Kentucky, the top Republican on the oversight panel.
Many Senate Republicans — including moderate senators facing tough races in November — are supportive of granting the agency a direct appropriation, albeit with some policy stipulations to address its long-term business model. Congress provided $10 billion in loan authority for the agency this spring, as well, that it has yet to use.
But Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said plainly on Saturday that he did not plan to bring up a stand-alone bill in the Senate when lawmakers are at a stalemate over broader coronavirus relief legislation.
“The facts show the U.S.P.S. is equipped to handle this election, and if a real need arises, Congress will meet it,” he said in a statement. “The Senate will absolutely not pass stand-alone legislation for the Postal Service while American families continue to go without more relief.”
The Democratic legislation would amount to an extraordinary intervention. Though it is a government entity explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, the modern Postal Service functions as a self-sustaining business that raises funds through postal products, not from taxpayers.
Democrats’ $25 billion comes with no strings attached, but their bill would effectively bar Postal Service leaders from making any changes that “impede prompt, reliable and efficient service” through at least January. It would reverse changes already put in place that Mr. DeJoy had declined to.
By imposing strict requirements until the end of the pandemic, it would, if approved, also effectively block the postmaster general from making more sweeping changes he has planned after Election Day that Democrats generally oppose.
The $25 billion in direct funds match a request the Postal Service made of Congress this spring to cover lost revenue.
Mr. DeJoy and the Postal Service remain supportive of a direct grant from Congress, though they have more cash on hand than previously anticipated. Still, he opposed the restrictions that Democrats’ bill would impose. On Friday, he urged lawmakers to pass bipartisan legislation to address the agency’s longer-term financial woes by unburdening it from a requirement to prefund retiree benefits that has put it deep in the red.
Even a short-term infusion of cash has become tied up in larger political and policy fights over how to respond to the pandemic.
Lawmakers had hoped to reach bipartisan consensus on a huge relief bill — including around $10 billion for the Postal Service — before they left town for their recess, but talks stalled.
Mr. McConnell expressed some optimism in recent days that the intense interest in the postal issue could present a new negotiating opportunity to draft a smaller, short-term bill to circumvent the impasse.
Democratic leaders had also been under pressure from more than 100 rank-and-file lawmakers to use Saturday’s session to address other elements of the coronavirus relief negotiations, as well. And Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, spent part of the day buzzing around the chamber to try to reignite talks.
“If you really want to help Americans, how about passing relief for small businesses and unemployment assistance ALONG with postal funding?” he wrote in a tweet. “We agree on these. There’s NO reason not to deliver relief for Americans right now.”
Ms. Pelosi insisted she was unwilling to break up Democrats’ $3.4 trillion relief bill into parts, arguing that the postal bill was necessary to handle separately because it included policy provisions that the larger measure did not.