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Senators Find Money in … Helium?

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

What can you do with helium other than inflate balloons? If you’re the Senate, apparently you can fund rural schools and the cleanup of old oil wells.

That’s what will happen if members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee get their way. On Tuesday, that panel agreed to send to the floor a bill overhauling the Federal Helium Program. It included a rather interesting amendment that most people probably didn’t notice, but CQ Roll Call energy expert Lauren Gardner certainly did.

Changing the way helium gets sold scores as a winner, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Senate version of the bill would save roughly $495 million. That’s real money, which members of the Energy panel, led by Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, decided they could use for other programs important to their states.

That includes Wyden’s Secure Rural Schools program, cleanup of abandoned oil and gas wells in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve and other federal sites, and the restoration of some Abandoned Mine Land payments to states, including Republican Sen. John Barrasso’s Wyoming, that were used to help offset the cost of last year’s transportation re-authorization bill.

Idaho Republican Sens. Jim Risch and Michael D. Crapo were among those criticizing the Obama administration for reductions in payments under the schools program, which is designed to compensate communities in states with large holdings of federal lands (that might otherwise generate revenue from private business like the timber industry).

“Once again, the administration is trying to make the sequester as difficult as possible on the American people. The President talks about investing in infrastructure, like roads, education and first responders, yet the cuts they are making directly impact the very things the administration says are a priority,” Risch said in a Monday statement.

The amendment also would fund efforts to ease a backlog of maintenance projects at national parks. In the current budget climate, senators look for money to use as offsets wherever they can, and if Wyden and Murkowski can pull this one off, it could be quite a coup.

Correction: June 19, 2013
An earlier version of the post incorrectly stated that it was the House bill that saved $495 million.

Geof Koss contributed to this report.

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