A bipartisan House of Representatives compromise to reauthorize the National Endowment for the Arts without restrictions on the content of the art the agency funds appears to be in the offing, but a vote to extend the life of the embattled federal arts agency has been put off until next week.
An aide to Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., a key NEA supporter, confirmed yesterday that Mr. Williams had been holding extensive talks with Rep. E. Thomas Coleman, R-Mo., aimed at staking out a position that would leave the decision on whether grant recipients had violated obscenity laws to the courts, not the endowment.
The Associated Press quoted Mr. Williams yesterday as saying, "We're going to get a deal" that is likely to be patterned after a bill approved overwhelmingly by a Senate committee two weeks ago. The Senate bill would place no legislative restrictions on the art the NEA could support, but would empower the agency to recover grant money awarded to artists whose NEA-funded work had been found by the courts to be obscene or in violation of child pornography laws.
The House had been scheduled to vote today on reauthorization of the NEA, whose statuatory authority expires Sunday. But the vote was put off until next week to allow more time for the drafting of several amendments scheduled to come up on the floor. (The House is not scheduled to meet tomorrow because of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur.)
The backing by Mr. Coleman of legislation that would reauthorize the NEA without content restrictions would be a major victory for supporters of the endowment, which has been mired for the last 18 months in controversy over its funding of art that some critics claim is objectionable or obscene.
Mr. Coleman, the ranking minority member of the House subcommittee that handled the NEA reauthorization, has been insisting for months that any legislation to keep the agency in existence would have to include language that would expressly forbid the NEA from funding works that are obscene under the Supreme Court's definition.
As recently as two weeks ago, Mr. Coleman said the "political reality" was that Congress "will include restrictive language" in any bill to reauthorize the NEA.
In addition to content restrictions, Mr. Coleman had been backing a proposal to triple the amount of NEA money funneled to state arts agencies from the existing 20 percent to 60 percent of the endowment funds. Mr. Williams told the AP that agreement had not yet been reached on that issue, but that a compromise might include a somewhat lesser increase in the amount of funds going to the states.
Mr. Coleman's office did not return phone calls yesterday.
A spokeswoman for Steve Gunderson, R-Wisc., who has also been backing the "60 percent" proposal, predicted yesterday that Mr. Gunderson would not support any legislation that "changes our plan too much."