The drama over the reauthorization of the National Endowment for the Arts is nearing a climax as the House of Representatives prepares to vote on the fate of the embattled federal arts agency.
The House is scheduled to vote on the NEA tomorrow. However, there is a slim chance the vote could come as early as today.
The House has been deeply divided over legislation to reauthorize the endowment, which has been embroiled in controversy for the last 18 months over its funding of art that some critics claim is objectionable or obscene.
Even after several hearings, the House Committee on Labor and Education could not reach a consensus on the issue, setting up an anticipated floor fight.
NEA supporters are hoping that the recent overwhelming approval by a Senate committee of a compromise plan to reauthorize the agency -- which would leave the determination of obscenity to the courts -- will help dissuade House members from imposing legislative restrictions on the content of NEA-funded art. But congressional critics insist they will still attempt to scuttle the endowment or, barring that, continue limits on the art it can fund.
"There's a more comfortable feeling in the House" about reauthorizing the NEA without content restrictions, said one congressional aide, who asked not to be identified.
But Richard Dykema, the chief adviser to Representative Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., the NEA's staunchest House critic, said he didn't think the Sept. 12 vote by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee "changed anything in the House." He said Mr. Rohrabacher's goals continued to be to abolish the NEA or prevent it from funding objectionable art.
Under the bill approved by the Senate committee, there would be no legislative restrictions placed on the art the NEA could support, but the agency would be empowered to recover grant money awarded to artists whose NEA-funded work was found by the courts to be obscene or in violation of child pornography laws.
The committee vote came one day after an independent commission recommended that Congress place no content restrictions on the NEA, but suggested major changes in the endowment's grant-making process.
Yesterday, language that would have kept the NEA chairman from funding "any indecent, anti-religious or obscene picture, play or writing" was removed by voice vote from a House Appropriations Committee resolution to continue to operate the government for 20 days past an Oct. 1 deadline at existing spending levels while a deficit-reduction plan is worked out. Under the resolution, prohibitions against the NEA's financing works that "may be considered obscene," adopted last year at the urging of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., would remain intact.
President Bush has threatened to veto the resolution.