In a lopsided defeat for conservatives led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the Senate on Wednesday resoundingly voted down attempts to impose new restrictions on the content of creative work funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Senate also approved by a margin of more than 2 to 1 a bipartisan compromise offered by 14 senators, led by Sen. Orrin G. 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 the 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," Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) said 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."
By a vote of 70 to 29, the Senate defeated 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 controversial 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 "individuals engaged in sex acts."
The Hatch amendment requires determination in a criminal court that art is obscene before the NEA is authorized to take action. If such a determination is made, the artist can be required to return the money and be declared ineligible for new grants.
The Hatch measure also imposes new procedural reforms on the NEA, including a ban on members of grant review panels having any direct involvement in a grant pending before the panel.
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-Ida.)--the appropriation bill'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."
The move prompted immediate expressions of fear from some arts groups, including PEN Center USA West, based in Los Angeles, and the Washington-based National Assn. of Artist Organizations. However, the acceptance by Byrd and McClure appeared to be a parliamentary tactic--with the wording likely to be eliminated or drastically altered in a later conference with the House to reconcile the two authorization measures.
The votes pertaining to the NEA were part of a larger $11.7-billion bill to fund 1991 operations of the Interior Department and a variety of other government agencies. The bill as a whole passed the Senate, 92 to 6, later Wednesday evening.
Both California senators--Republican Pete Wilson and Democrat Alan Cranston--voted against Helms in the only roll call vote among the three NEA amendments he offered. However, the Californians split on the victorious Hatch compromise, with Wilson opposing the measure and Cranston supporting it.
As the debate wore on, even Helms appeared to recognize that he was in the process of suffering a significant defeat. "It'll probably pass," he said of the Hatch amendment while the measure was being debated. "I knew this scenario would develop. The Senate is ducking (the NEA controversy.) The sleaze continues."
Helms blamed the situation at least in part on the influence on senators of their wives, who, he asserted, tend often to be involved in arts organizations. He also complained that artists and arts sympathizers have contributed extensively to his opponent in his North Carolina reelection campaign. The adversary, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, has raised at least $1 million from arts sources, Helms contended.
"Assuming I may be in this Senate next year," Helms continued, "I say to all the arts community and to all the homosexuals: You ain't seen nothing yet."
Hatch, who emerged earlier this year as an unexpected champion of arts causes, led an amendment fight joined by 13 other senators. A bipartisan leadership nucleus of the group included Hatch and Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).