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Budget battle threatens Postal Service. Proposed $1.7 billion cut could slow delivery, shorten hours

'Tis the season for Americans to be happy with their Postal Service. Six days a week the letter carrier, like a governmental Kris Kringle, dispenses Christmas messages from his sack. Despite the seasonal lines in post offices, Americans generally are pleased. But the cheers may change to boos, and as early as next week. That's when postal officials say they may have to begin reducing service at postal windows - which will lengthen lines - and taking other cost-cutting steps that also would impair service and delay the obtaining of new equipment that would increase efficiency.

The reason? Postal officials say it will be necessary for them to meet their share of Senate-approved cuts in the federal deficit totaling $26 billion, should the bill become law. ``If this legislation is enacted,'' says Postmaster General Preston R. Tisch, ``we will be unable to provide the level of service we have been working so hard to achieve.''

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Regardless of the merit of the case, the Postal Service's unusual public opposition to this measure illustrates the difficulty that budget cutters in Washington have in translating vague ideas into precise reductions of programs. In recent weeks, for example, word at one point leaked out that the White House and congressional budget conferees were considering delaying or reducing the cost-of-living allowances for social security retirees. Retirees and their advocates objected, and the idea was promptly scuttled.

The bill that would affect the Postal Service is now in a Senate-House conference. It is expected to be enacted into law in some form in a few days. Postal officials say they are trying to change it. What they object to, they say, is not the saving of money but the way the bill requires them to do it.

They would like to give the federal government $1.5 billion over two years from what in effect is their savings account. But the bill requires that they instead provide nearly $2 billion, and mandates that half be found by cutting operating expenses, and half by spending less for new equipment and facilities.

In recent months Postmaster General Tisch has made a major effort to streamline the Postal Service. He says postal employee productivity, while it ``could be better'', now is ``good.'' Postal officials say achieving the $2 billion saving over two years would require relatively Draconian measures.

In the broadest sense, postal officials are fighting not only the current situation but for the future. They can foresee that under current law Congress two years from now would likely tell them what new savings to accomplish to help in the fight against the national deficit. To forestall this, they want their budget once again divorced from the US budget, as it was until two years ago. They want to decide how best to save money.

In any case, postal officials say that if the Senate-approved bill becomes law, they probably would reduce the staff by the equivalent of 30,000 full-time positions, end Saturday window service, send long-distance first-class mail by surface instead of air, and possibly end Saturday mail delivery. One result would be to slow the mails, which officials acknowledge could decrease postal revenues by causing some advertisers and mailers to shift to competing private services.

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