Here's Something Congress Can Agree On: Helium

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With the government on the brink of a shutdown, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have come together to compromise on helium. Legislation passed late last week will keep the gas used in party balloons flowing from a national reserve.

The helium bill's passage shows that compromise is still possible in the fractious political climate. But finding agreement over this inert gas was tough. The new law came after more than a year of intensive lobbying by some of America's largest businesses and academic institutions.

The U.S. government began stockpiling helium in the 1920s, back when blimps were a weapon of war. Today the Federal Helium Reserve contains roughly 11 billion cubic feet of helium. The government has turned this helium into a lucrative business, selling it to scientists and private companies. It's used in a wide variety of applications, including semiconductor manufacturing, fiber optics, the aerospace industry and MRI machines.

Roughly half of all helium consumed in the U.S. comes from the reserve. But the 1996 law that authorized helium sales was set to expire at the start of October.

"Having that supply turn off would have been very, very detrimental and very, very disruptive," says David Isaacs a lobbyist with the Semiconductor Industry Association, which represents microchip manufactures like Intel.

For months, Isaacs has been spearheading a major effort to keep the helium flowing. He organized more than 120 universities, trade associations and corporations into a helium coalition. They went to Capitol Hill to build support. "Right when the Congress returned in January, we were working the issue hard," Isaacs says.

There were helium hearings in the House and Senate. Industry leaders gave testimony and a bipartisan group of senators and representatives came together to author legislation and urge their fellow politicians to pass the law.

"If Congress fails to act before October, we will artificially drop the helium supply and cause a global helium shortage that will cost jobs and severely disrupt our economy," Republican Congressman Doc Hastings of Washington said on the floor of the House earlier this year.

But even with all this support, the helium legislation ran into trouble. Politicians couldn't agree over how to spend the money from selling helium. The House version of the bill called for all the money to go toward deficit reduction, while the Senate wanted to use some of the money to fund things like national parks and environmental cleanup.

Last Thursday the House finally passed a compromise version that would put $100 million from helium sales toward deficit reduction and use the rest for other programs. (The bill passed the Senate, 97-2, the week before. Among the dissenters was Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has been pushing the fight over the federal budget.)

The Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act of 2013 now goes to President Obama for his signature.

Isaacs is relieved that the legislation has passed: "What it does is avoid a major train wreck that was about to happen," he says.

But Jim Thurber, a political scientist at American University, says that the bill's trials and tribulations show just how little room for agreement there is on Capitol Hill.

"We can't get anything passed of significance except selling helium," Thurber says. "It's actually laughable in terms of how dysfunctional they are."

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