House Delays Vote on NEA Funding Bill


House Speaker Tom Foley moved Tuesday to delay a key vote on the National Endowment for the Arts as an unexpected bipartisan partnership surfaced in support of a moderate approach to spare the NEA from severe content control restrictions.

The combination of actions occurred in a quickly developing, daylong series of events that saw the emergence of a loose coalition involving Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), a key leader of House arts supporters, and Rep. Fred Grandy (R-Iowa), a former actor and star in the television series "The Love Boat."

Though Grandy is a moderate Republican, he has played an important--if low profile--role over the last several months in attempting to help the arts endowment avoid major damage in legislation pending in the House and Senate to extend the NEA's legislative life--for a term that now appears likely to be three years, not the five originally proposed by President Bush.

As late as Tuesday morning, Foley (D-Wash.) had said a floor vote would be held on the pending NEA reauthorization legislation Friday.

But later in the day, after a series of behind-the-scenes developments and the filing of seven separate content-control amendments to the NEA bill, Foley's office said action on the measure would be put off until after the August congressional recess--until at least September and perhaps October.

Williams said Foley concluded that the NEA matter, which the speaker said might eventually attracted a total of 26 amendments, would be hopelessly time-consuming as Congress rushes toward adjournment.

"(Foley) just said, 'I can't fit this 200-pound gorilla in this 12-pound cage,' " according to Williams. "However, a happy consequence of the delay is that people, including folks in the arts community, will have more time to examine the various alternatives."

Williams also noted that the delay will allow time for an independent commission established by Congress last year to study the NEA to deliver its formal recommendations, which are due by mid-September. The commission met Monday and Tuesday of this week and has scheduled three days of sessions next week here.

Williams said the nature and extent of the legislative partnership on the NEA that may develop between him and Grandy remained unclear. "He and I haven't determined that yet," Williams said. He contended that he and the Iowa congressman have only had one brief meeting on the issue.

Williams scheduled a briefing on the situation with arts groups late Tuesday afternoon.

"The disadvantage (of the delay), of course, is that the far right--particularly the evangelical right--can again gin up their machinery," Williams told arts group officials. He conceded that delaying the matter also risks making congressmen in tight election races nervous about the intrusion of an NEA vote late in the campaign season. He said action on the NEA bill must be completed by mid-September, or face attempts by nervous congressmen to put it off entirely until next year.

Between them, the Williams and Grandy initiatives:

* Include a Williams amendment that would stipulate that the arts endowment is to make awards strictly on the basis of "artistic excellence and merit" and observe that "obscenity is without artistic merit" and therefore ineligible for funding.

The provision is likely to be acceptable to arts groups since, at a summit of art organizations convened by Williams several weeks ago, a consensus was reached condemning obscenity as at odds with artistic objectives. At the same time, it constitutes a statutory prohibition intended to appeal to lawmakers who have been critical of controversial grants made by the NEA.

* Also rely on a proposed Grandy amendment that would hold that grant money would have to be repaid to the endowment within one year after a final appeals court ruling that a given work was obscene.

Separately Tuesday, a House appropriations subcommittee passed without debate a draft bill that would increase the NEA's 1991 budget from $175 million to $180 million--including an extra $900,000 to be added to the endowment's proposed $26.1 million budget for grants to state arts agencies. The move could partially neutralize an attempt by Reps. Tom Coleman (R-Mo.) and Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), who have sponsored legislation to revamp the NEA so that 60% of its money is doled out to state arts councils in block grants. The Coleman-Gunderson bill would also impose harsh restrictions on the content of NEA-funded art.

The appropriations subcommittee action came at a meeting chaired by Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), the dean of House arts supporters, and occurred as a result of an agreement between Yates and Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) to postpone Republican attempts to write content-control language into the appropriation bill.

"It is difficult to understand how opponents have provoked so much furor with so little justification," said Yates of the NEA crisis, adding that "the sky is not falling in terms of controversial (NEA) grants."

Senate observers said Foley's action may also have been motivated by a desire to let the Senate act first on NEA reauthorization. Senate insiders have urged such an approach because they believe a series of quiet, continuing negotiations among four key senators can find a bipartisan consensus that affords sufficient political cover to congressmen reluctant to vote for an unfettered arts endowment, but that does not trample constitutional guarantees of the right to artistic freedom of expression.

Involved in these ongoing negotiations are Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). If such a coalition was able to produce a consensus NEA bill, Senate sources believe it could have sufficient political strength to withstand the onslaught of opposition certain to come from forces led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

After Foley's announcement that the Friday vote would be put off, however, Grandy's office said the final wording of the amendment might be revised between now and when the House finally acts on the bill.

As expected, other amendments formally filed with the Rules Committee included measures by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach) to forbid a wide variety of specifically described kinds of artistic subject matter, language by Rep. Paul Henry (R-Mich.) who would have Congress outlaw work that denigrates American democratic traditions, specific religions and racial or ethnic groups, and a measure by Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.), to abolish the NEA.

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