Settled. Senate vote could end uncertainty over the future of helium sales from a U.S. government reserve.


Updated: U.S. Senate Ends Helium Saga

The U.S. Senate could soon end a protracted pingpong match over the future of the market for helium, a gas coveted by scientists and high-tech companies alike.

Senators are expected to vote as early as today to approve legislation that would allow the U.S. government to continue selling helium from a national reserve that plays a key role in U.S. and world supplies. The Senate’s approval would clear the way for President Barack Obama to sign the bill, preventing a major disruption in a system that is scheduled to end on 1 October.

“We have every hope and expectation that the Senate will approve the bill quickly,” says David Isaacs, vice president for government affairs at the Semiconductor Industry Association in Washington, D.C., one of several research and industry groups that have lobbied for its passage.

The legislation has been the subject of complex serve-and-return legislating by the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. The House first passed a helium bill in April, and last week the Senate passed a different version. House lawmakers then insisted on a number of tweaks to the Senate bill, however, raising fears that Congress might not make the deadline for sustaining helium sales.

Last night, the House unanimously approved a revised version after altering portions that spell out how money from helium sales is raised and spent. Those changes were made with input from Senate staffers, Isaacs says, and hopes are high that the Senate will now quickly take up and pass the bill.

“We wish it could have been done months ago, and we wish it hadn’t taken four votes to get the job done,” Isaac says. “But we are optimistic that there will be a very favorable outcome.”

Many scientists who use helium in the lab will be relieved to see the matter settled. But a new law won’t solve one problem, some say: Prices could stay relatively high for buyers of small quantities, stretching research budgets.

*Update, 26 September, 4:35 p.m.: The Senate has passed the helium bill. It will now be sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.