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As we've been discussing, government appears to be on the brink of a shutdown. But Congress has compromised on one thing. Not the budget, but helium. Legislation that passed late last week is set to keep the gas used in party balloons flowing from a national reserve. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, in this divided Congress, even a bill on an inert gas didn't sail through the process.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The government began stockpiling helium in the 1920s, back when blimps were a weapon of war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Slowly, the airship moves forward and up. The huge, helium-filled envelope makes the blimp lighter than air.

BRUMFIEL: 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.

DAVID ISAACS: It's used in semiconductor manufacturing as well as medical devices like MRI machines, fiber optics, the aerospace industry, chemicals.

BRUMFIEL: David Isaacs is with the Semiconductor Industry Association, which represents microchip manufacturers like Intel. Roughly half of all helium consumed in the United States comes from the reserve. But the law authorizing helium sales was set to expire at the start of this October.

ISAACS: Having that supply turn off would have been very, very detrimental and very, very disruptive.

BRUMFIEL: For months, Isaacs has been spearheading a major effort to keep the helium flowing. He organized more than 120 universities and corporations into a helium coalition. They went to the Hill to build support.

ISAACS: Right when the Congress returned in January, we were working the issue hard.

BRUMFIEL: There were helium hearings in the House and Senate. Testimony, debates, bills authored. Here's Republican Congressman Doc Hastings on the floor of the House earlier this year urging action.

REPRESENTATIVE DOC HASTINGS: 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.

BRUMFIEL: 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. It was only late last week, right at the last possible minute, that the differences were resolved. Congress passed the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act of 2013. Could this bipartisan helium bill mean there's a glimmer of hope that Congress can fix the current budget crisis? Unlikely, says Jim Thurber, a political scientist at American University.

JIM THURBER: Congress is at a historic standstill, a historic gridlock.

BRUMFIEL: In fact, Thurber says this small victory is a reminder of just how broken the system is.

THURBER: We can't get anything passed of significance except selling helium. It's actually laughable in terms of how dysfunctional they are.

BRUMFIEL: Do you think that there are other elements maybe, neon? I'm just looking at the periodic table here. Xenon? Do you think Congress can come together on xenon?

THURBER: I can't think of another element that they can agree on at this point.

BRUMFIEL: In other words, the only other gas coming out of Capitol Hill this fall is hot air. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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