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NEA's Ninth Life Sparks GOP Cat-and-Dog Fight

As House readies to vote on arts agency, moderates backtrack on a shutdown

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a perennial target of conservatives and the Christian right, faces yet another attack in the House of Representatives. It will probably survive. But the process could deal House GOP unity a serious blow, one the leadership was scrambling to ward off yesterday.

The fight comes over the $13 billion Interior Appropriations bill, scheduled to reach the House floor today. The measure funds the NEA, along with parts of the Interior Department, the Forest Service, Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Gallery of Art, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

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President Clinton wants to raise the endowment's budget from about $100 million this year to $136 million next year. The House bill, however, would cut the endowment's funding to $10 million and shut it down.

A shutdown would fulfill a deal between House GOP conservatives and moderates two years ago, when conservatives agreed to fund the agency for two more years on the understanding that it would be closed in fiscal 1998.

But moderates are now fighting to save the agency, and want the right to vote on an amendment to restore its funding. Republican leaders have told conservatives they will block such an amendment. That could cause moderates to use a procedural vote to delay consideration of the entire measure unless the leadership could broker a compromise.

GOP leaders held a series of meetings over the last two days to put such a deal together. "I think there's an effort to find some middle ground," said Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the GOP conference chairman. One approach, he said, would be to replace NEA with some type of federal block-grants to state arts agencies.

NEA opponents say the government has no business funding the arts and that the agency has aided obscene and pornographic works. Supporters say the money creates jobs, ensures rural Americans have access to the arts, and encourages arts education.

"This federal seed money has bolstered the arts industry, supporting nearly a million jobs across the nation," said 28 Republicans in a letter to House Speaker Newt Gingrich this week, circulated by Rep. Rick Lazio of New York. "In return, the arts have given back to the federal government, producing $3.4 billion in revenue."

Endowment representatives point out that no NEA-funded project has ever been found to be obscene or pornographic. "Out of 112,000 grants we have made since 1965, 40 have caused some people some problems," says an endowment aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. "These are very old things that [opponents] recycle over and over again." Many of the offensive works cited by opponents never received NEA funding or support, endowment representatives say.

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In addition, Congress and NEA Chairman Jane Alexander have changed the rules under which the endowment can make grants in an effort to head off problems. The NEA can no longer make grants to individuals (except in literature), and funds groups only for specific projects, instead of for entire seasons, as before. Operational expenses are not covered, and NEA grantees cannot subgrant their funding to others.

Even if the House votes to kill the endowment, that move will run into a stone wall in the Senate and at the White House. Franklin Raines, Mr. Clinton's budget director, has threatened a presidential veto of any Interior bill that does not include sufficient NEA funding.

But a veto probably won't be necessary. The Senate has firmly resisted previous attempts to kill the endowment, which a solid core of both conservative and moderate Republicans support.

"There is still significant support for the arts endowment over here," a Senate GOP aide says. Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington, the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee chairman, has indicated his panel will probably approve funding, but not above the current level.

"I can assure you there will be an NEA next year," says Richard Woodruff, the NEA's legislative director. Besides support from the president and the Senate, he predicts, "NEA supporters will probably win in the House this week."

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