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WASHINGTON -- The Senate has approved a bill to avert an impending shutdown of the federal helium reserve, a key supplier of the lighter-than-air gas used in a wide range of products, from party balloons to MRI machines.

The Federal Helium Program, which provides about 42 percent of the nation's helium from a storage site in Texas, is to shut down Oct. 7 as a result of a 1996 law requiring the reserve to pay off a debt by selling its helium.

The debt is paid, but billions of cubic feet of helium remain. Closing the reserve would cause a worldwide helium shortage -- an outcome some Idaho lawmakers hope to avoid.

The bill the Senate passed Thursday differs slightly from a House-approved bill. President Barack Obama favors the Senate version.

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