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Postal service reports $354 million first-quarter loss, as Congress considers help

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WASHINGTON - The Postal Service lost $354 million over the last three months, and officials warned that mounting losses could lead to cash flow problems for the rest of the year, the agency said Friday.

The loss was far less than the $1.3 billion in the comparable quarter the previous fiscal year, but Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe continued to press Congress to give the agency more flexibility to manage its finances.

The report for the financial quarter ending December 31 comes as Congress works toward fixing the agency's troubled finances. On Thursday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved a bill that would end Saturday mail delivery and make permanent a temporary hike in the cost of a first-class stamp, which went from 46 to 49 cents on Jan. 26.

The Senate measure also would restructure a congressional requirement that forces the agency to make a $5.6 billion annual payment for future retiree health benefits. The Postal Service has been urging Congress to reform the service's finances as it continues to cope with steep financial losses. The Postal Service lost $5 billion in the last fiscal year, down from $15.9 billion in 2012.

"We cannot return the organization to long-term financial stability without passage of comprehensive postal reform legislation," Donahoe said.

On the positive side, the Postal Service said revenue grew by $334 million, driven by a 14.6 per cent growth in shipping and package services that saw a boost from the holiday season. But first-class mail declined 4.6 per cent, as more customers shift to the Internet to pay bills and send emails.

Postal unions have complained that the Senate bill goes too far in calling for an end to Saturday mail delivery once mail volume drops below 140 billion pieces over four consecutive quarters. They claim the move would hurt consumers and lead to thousands of job cuts.

"Today's Postal Service figures for the first quarter of 2014 are highly encouraging and show why the postal network must be maintained and strengthened, not degraded," said Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

The bulk of the agency's financial problems stem from the federally mandated annual payments to cover expected health care costs for future retirees. It has defaulted on three of those payments and warned Friday that it is likely to default again when the next payment is due on Sept. 30.

The federal budget bill that Congress approved last month requires six-day delivery to continue, meaning the U.S. Postal Service won't be able to cut Saturday mail anytime soon.

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