Senate votes to get government out of the helium business

The House passed similar legislation this spring, but Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) complained that the Senate version spends most of the $500 million in revenue that would be generated rather than paying down the deficit.

“We get it in our heads around here that just because we raise revenue and spending that it doesn’t have implications for our Treasury,” Sessions said. “The idea that you can just do that is dangerous because it creates more taxing and more spending.”

The Senate technically passed H.R. 527, the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act, but added S. 1513 as an amendment, so the measure will head back to the House. Cruz and Sessions were the only senators who voted against the bill.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the bill would reduce the deficit by more than $50 million. He also said another difference between the House and Senate bills is that the Senate version permanently gets the federal government out of the helium business.

Ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said it was critical that the House and Senate work out their difference before Oct. 1, because under current law the government is no longer supposed to sell helium on that day.

“We need to move to pass this bill but also to reconcile the remaining issues we have with the House by Oct. 1,” Murkowski said. “If we want to prevent a shortage of helium gas in this country we’re going to have to do it and do it now.”

She pointed out that helium is used by high-tech and manufacturing industries, not just for "party balloons."

The federal government first got involved in selling helium during World War I, selling it below market value. But lawmakers have said that because the government has always sold helium at such low levels there has been no incentive for the private sector to get involved — this legislation aims to change that. 

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