Updated at 10:18 a.m. ET
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy defended his leadership of the Postal Service on Friday and sought to reassure senators that his agency would be able to deliver the nation's election mail "securely and on time," calling it a "sacred duty."
"There has been no changes in any policies with regard to the election mail for the 2020 election," he said.
This hearing marks DeJoy's first public remarks since walking back his plan for operational changes that drew heavy criticism.
He pushed back on suggestions that these changes had political motivations. "Trying to have any negative impact on the election is an outrageous claim," he said.
All the same, DeJoy said the Postal Service's mandate to provide reliable postal service to the public is at "fundamental risk" because of its long-term financial losses and called on Congress to provide his agency with relief.
"Changes must be made to ensure our sustainability for the years and decades ahead," he said.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, asked DeJoy whether he had discussed any of the changes he made since he assumed his post in June with the Trump campaign of any Trump administration officials.
DeJoy said no: "I have never spoken to the president about the Postal Service, other than to congratulate me when I accepted the position."
The U.S. Postal Service has suffered from financial problems for years but DeJoy, a Republican fundraiser, chose this summer to cut overtime, withdraw sorting machines and impose other changes that have effectively reduced the system's throughput.
Democrats charged that was part of a scheme by President Trump to sabotage the transit of ballots this year following weeks of sustained criticism by Trump of voting by mail — even though that's how the president votes.
DeJoy rejected that out of hand and said he too votes by mail and expects to this year.
Critics more broadly complained that the disruptions to the Postal Service were causing people to miss mail and, in some cases, delay the arrival of medications and other such items.
DeJoy is testifying virtually before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Watch it live here.
It was made in the name of saving money: The USPS lost $9 billion last year, and could lose $11 billion this year, DeJoy said earlier this month. But the changes led to almost immediate reports of mail delays and frustration from postal worker unions, and accusations from Democrats of voter suppression and election sabotage.
"Mail is beginning to pile up in our offices, and we're seeing equipment being removed," said Kimberly Karol, president of the Iowa Postal Workers Union, in an NPR interview last week. "So we are beginning to see the impact of those changes."
Worries were already bubbling about how the changes would affect November's election, when more than half of all ballots cast are expected to be returned or delivered through the mail.
And President Trump exacerbated those fears, when in a press conference and subsequent interview, he tied Postal Service funding to his hope about hampering mail-in voting expansions nationwide during the pandemic.
In response to the bipartisan backlash to those comments, DeJoy changed course and announced that his organizational changes would wait until after the election.
"To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded," DeJoy said in a statement.
Democrats made it clear they were still not satisfied, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling the statement "wholly insufficient" and "misleading."
In particular, Democrats say they want DeJoy not only to halt the changes, but to work to reverse them and replace equipment that was removed, for instance.
Republicans: Oh come on
Some of Trump's allies have scoffed at the flap over the Postal Service.
In a note to lawmakers this week, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., dubbed Democrats' proposed bill to aid the Postal Service a "conspiracy theory act" and said there is no true urgent problem with the mail system.
"This bill is nothing but an attempt to fabricate a postal crisis for political purposes, while wasting taxpayer funds that aren't needed in order to appease unions and trial lawyers," Scalise wrote.
In an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., pushed back on claims that there have been large mail delays.
"People put something in the mail and it may take five days, it may take two days, it may take seven days," he said. "Mail does not have a promised delivery date."
Republicans control the Senate committee before which DeJoy appeared on Friday. Democrats control a House panel before which he is scheduled to appear on Monday.
Lawmakers are expected to press DeJoy for more specifics on the directives he's given. Most of the information about the changes up to this point has come from media reports and the postal workers unions.
Democrats especially may also just look for reassurances that election mail will be a priority, said former Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman. DeJoy did not respond to a group of top election officials who requested a meeting with him last week, NPR reported.
"The Post Office is not a private company. Its stakeholders are the American people," Stroman said. "So in these situations you owe it to the American people to be very clear and very transparent about why you are making operational changes."