WASHINGTON -- In a lopsided defeat for conservatives led by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the Senate has resoundingly voted down attempts to impose harsh new restrictions on the content of creative work funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Senate yesterday also approved by a margin of more than 2-to-1 a bipartisan compromise offered by 14 senators, led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to relax NEA restrictions enacted by Congress last year that have resulted in more than two dozen grant rejections and three lawsuits by artists and arts institutions.
The Senate actions followed similar votes on the NEA authorization bill in the House within the last two weeks, perhaps signaling that campaign waged by conservative politicians and right-wing religious groups against the NEA had run out of steam.
"This sudden flurry of difficulty is passing," said Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y., of the 18-month NEA political crisis as momentum against Helms built throughout the afternoon. "Peace returns to the legislative process. The artists again can be their own."
The Senate voted 70-29 to defeat the first of three amendments offered by Helms to an NEA appropriation bill for 1991. That rider would have prohibited the NEA from funding work that depicts "in a patently offensive way" explicit sexual or excretory activities.
Less than two hours later, the Hatch-led amendment to loosen the fiscal 1990 restrictions on the NEA passed, 73-to-24. The amendment replaces wording in the NEA's current funding bill that bans support of works "that may be considered obscene," including sadomasochistic or homoerotic depictions or depictions of "individuals engaged in sex acts."
Helms accepted voice vote defeat of a second amendment to ban NEA grants to artists making at least $95,000 a year. However, in part of a political accommodation, Sens. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and James A. McClure, R-Idaho, who were the measure's floor managers, accepted a third Helms amendment. That rider prohibits NEA support of work that "denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion."