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Senate approves measure to avoid 'helium cliff'

By Ros Krasny

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Thursday easily passed a measure that would prevent a shutdown of the U.S. helium reserve program in early October.

Helium - best known as the gas used to fill party balloons - is a critical product in the aerospace and defense industries and also used in the manufacture of smart phones and medical equipment, among other things.

Under current law the Federal Helium Program was scheduled to end on October 7, barring reauthorization by Congress.

The Interior Department, which operates the program, had indicated it would have to start reducing supplies on October 1 to prepare for a shutdown of the reserve.

Closing the reserve would have risked a disruption to the U.S. economy, backers of the legislation warned. The reserve provides 42 percent of U.S. crude helium and 35 percent of world supplies.

The Senate vote was 97-2. Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama dissented.

The White House on Thursday said it supported the Senate vote to keep the reserve operational.

"The impending shutdown of this program would cause a spike in helium prices that would harm many U.S. industries and disrupt national security programs," the White House's Office of Management and Budget said in a statement.

The Senate action, it said, would provide for an orderly transition of the federal government out of the helium market.

Senator Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, who as a member of Congress was co-author of the House version that passed in April, praised the Senate passage of the bill.

"Hospitals and technology manufacturers will still get the helium they need, and this bill will provide important transparency for the pricing of this vital resource," Markey said in a statement.

The Bureau of Land Management, an Interior Department agency, runs the program out of offices in Amarillo, Texas.

Helium is most commonly recovered from natural gas deposits, many of them in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, the BLM said on its website.

(Reporting by Ros Krasny; Editing by Gary Hill and Steve Orlofsky)

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