The US Postal Service said Tuesday it will halt changes blamed for slowing mail delivery until after the November election, changing course in the wake of the political firestorm President Donald Trump ignited when he acknowledged he wanted to undermine the agency.
Trump, who faces a tough reelection bid, also has called into question the reliability of mail-in voting at a time when a large share of voters are expected to use absentee ballots as a safer option amid the COVID-19 the pandemic.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump ally who took over the position in June, has been under intense pressure from Congress amid the reforms he has been implementing.
"There are some longstanding operational initiatives -- efforts that predate my arrival at the Postal Service -- that have been raised as areas of concern as the nation prepares to hold an election in the midst of a devastating pandemic," DeJoy said in a statement on Tuesday.
"To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded."
Trump last week said he was opposed to more funding for the cash-strapped USPS, acknowledging the funds would be used to help process votes.
"They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots," Trump told Fox News on Thursday.
"But if they don't get those... that means you can't have universal mail-in voting."
His comments came after DeJoy presided over the removal of mail collection boxes and processing equipment as well as cutting overtime pay, which a union leader told AFP has slowed mail delivery nationwide.
He also reshuffled senior management, and the USPS warned most states that it could not guarantee on-time delivery of mail in ballots.
Democrats in Congress seized on the changes and the president's remarks to claim the White House was plotting to undermine confidence in the post office and help Trump's bid for a second term.
"Pure Trump. He doesn't want an election," Joe Biden, Trump's Democratic challenger and former vice president said last week.
- Stalemate -
In his statement, DeJoy said he would maintain regular hours at post offices, stop the removal of collection boxes and sorting machines, and overtime "will continue to be approved as needed."
He also said the Post Office would "engage standby resources in all areas of our operations, including transportation, to satisfy any unforeseen demand" starting in October.
Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said the moves do not go far enough.
"(W)e need a PERMANENT rescission of ALL of DeJoy's harmful policies," he tweeted.
Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called the House back into session to address the issues, and DeJoy is set to testify before committees in both chambers this week and next.
A North Carolina logistics executive, DeJoy has donated $1.2 million to Trump's campaign and almost $1.3 million to the Republican party since 2016, according to The New York Times.
The controversy comes as the White House and Democratic leadership remain deadlocked on a new emergency spending package.
Democrats want to include funding for the USPS in a follow-up bill to the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed in March, which was credited with providing some relief to consumers and businesses until key provisions expired in recent weeks.
- USPS denial -
Republicans have balked at how much the Democrats want to spend especially on aid to state and local governments, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday called on them to be "reasonable."
Since his statement last week, Trump has vacillated on how to treat the post office, indicating he may be open to more funding for it in an eventual package.
"The U.S. Post Office (System) has been failing for many decades. We simply want to MAKE THE POST OFFICE GREAT AGAIN, while at the same time saving billions of dollars a year for American Taxpayers," Trump tweeted on Monday.
The US is home to the world's worst coronavirus outbreak and Americans are predicted to rely on vote-by-mail in record numbers, with an estimated three-quarters of the population able to do so this fall.