A tale of two Senates

The common perception of the Congress is that lawmakers can no longer work across party lines to get anything done, and that dysfunction was demonstrated again as the Senate deadlocked over a jobless benefits bill on Thursday, as Democrats came up one vote short in their quest to force action on a bill to extend benefits through the end of March.

After the vote, both parties pointed the finger of blame at each other, as Democrats assailed GOP Senators for a filibuster and Republicans blasted the Democrats for holding five cloture votes so far this year on the matter - but not one vote on the Senate floor on any amendments to the jobless bill.

In a nutshell, it showcased just about everything that voters in both parties can't stand about Congress right now - lots of finger pointing, lots of partisan talk and no action to show for it.

But just an hour earlier, in a Senate hearing room across the street from the U.S. Capitol, another group of Senators showed that it is still possible to reach across party lines on controversial legislation and put together a deal.

"We haven't kicked the can down the road," said Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, as his panel approved a bill to reform the Postal Service.

"We can actually look the American people in eye and say, we fixed this problem," Carper added, as his committee sent the bill to the Senate floor.

Carper, along with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), spent almost six months trying to put together a deal, and then jointly steered the plan past several legislative minefields - including a fight over gun rights at postal facilities - to get a bill out of committee, and maybe on the way to consideration by the full Senate.

"I think both of you recognized that the status quo is unacceptable," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), as lawmakers in both parties bemoaned the terrible financial condition of the Postal Service, which has lost billions of dollars in recent years.

But outside groups were not as pleased with the deal, and vowed to work against its approval.

"The Postal Reform Act would do serious harm to the Postal Services competitive viability by raising rates and cutting essential services," the Greeting Card Association said in a statement issued to reporters.

Here are the basics of the Carper-Coburn Postal Reform measure:

+ The plan keeps in place the recent postage rate increase and then allows for yearly rate increases indexed to inflation through 2017

+ The bill allows the Postal Service to get rid of Saturday letter delivery, but only if total mail volume drops below 140 billion pieces, or by late in 2017

+ The measure sets up a new health plan just for Postal Service employees, and funnels more of them into Medicare to save money on retiree benefits

+ The Postal Service could not move to consolidate and/or close postal facilities for two years after approval of these reforms

+ The bill would allow the Postal Service to deliver wine, beer and distilled spirits, which could raise revenues

+ The measure gives the Postal Service more power to dispose of excess buildings and property

The Senate approved a Postal Reform bill several years ago, but the House has failed to vote on a companion measure - even though both parties say the current financial situation for the Postal Service is untenable.

Now, bills have made it through committees in both chambers in this session of Congress - whether they can make it to the floor for final action - that's unclear.

"We've had pretty good communication here, I think a fair amount of compromise and good collaboration," Carper said right before the final vote in favor of the bill.

Why did this bill move forward, unlike the plan on extended jobless benefits?

The answer seems pretty simple.

Carper not only worked hard to find bipartisan compromise on a variety of issues, but most importantly, the Delaware Democrat opened the amendment process in the committee, allowing Senators to work through their concerns - something the Senate floor hasn't seen in a long time.

Most Americans may think the Congress can't get anything done, but if you look carefully, the seeds of action and compromise are still there - and yes - it does involve both parties.

Like most things, it isn't easy.  But it can still happen.