A White House proposal to reauthorize the National Endowment for the Arts for one year met with a poor reception on the Hill yesterday and quickly started to change shape under the heat of congressional criticism.

NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer appeared before a Senate appropriations subcommittee and said he and the administration still support a full five-year reauthorization of the endowment but will settle for a shorter period, perhaps a year or maybe three.

Senate sources said Democrats handling the legislation to extend the life of the agency might support a one-year renewal if the bill imposes no restriction on the content of federally funded art and if the legislation has vigorous White House support. But Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho) said he will oppose extending the NEA's life for even a year without restrictive language. The NEA's fiscal 1990 appropriation precludes the endowment from funding "obscene" art.

On the House side, members from both sides of the aisle said they are unwilling to fight for a one-year reauthorization. "The administration reminds me of a car careening from one proposal to another," said Rep. Tom Coleman (R-Mo.).

In what appears to signal a potential shift in the Bush administration's position, a senior White House official said the administration prefers no content restrictions but would not necessarily veto a one-year extension that includes the current language. Previously, President Bush has stated his support for a full five-year reauthorization with no restrictive language. The possible one-year extension surfaced Tuesday as the White House sought a "cooling-off period" in the mounting controversy over the federal funding of art.

Arts groups have vigorously opposed the current content restrictions. A constitutional challenge is pending in federal court in New York, and some major institutions have turned down NEA funding in protest. New York Shakespeare Festival producer Joseph Papp already rejected one grant and said in a telephone interview yesterday that he is poised to turn down two more, one for $130,000 and one for $250,000. Papp said the festival will not accept any NEA grants as long as recipients are required to sign forms pledging compliance with the anti-obscenity restrictions.

On the House side, Democratic and Republican members were resentful that they had not been consulted by the White House on the possible one-year extension.

Coleman, who has proposed a dramatic restructuring that would shift most responsibility for allocating NEA grant money to the states, said he wants to fight for a five-year reauthorization of a revamped endowment.

He adamantly opposed a one-year extension, saying, "I would think that they would have asked for some opinion up here to see if it's going to fly." Asked whether he would resist pressure from Bush to back a one-year reauthorization, Coleman replied, "I already tried to be a team player. ... I wanted to work with the White House."

Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), chairman of the House subcommittee shepherding the NEA reauthorization, shared Coleman's displeasure. "Before the White House begins to legislate on this, they really ought to communicate directly with Tom {Coleman} and myself, other members of our committees, as well as the leadership on the Democratic and Republican side," he said. "To do less than that shows political naivete and will result in serious political mischief."

While Williams is amenable to reauthorization for less than five years, he said, "I think it's terribly unwise to have one-year reauthorization, which means we would have to spill blood twice in two years and allow John Frohnmayer and the NEA to swing slowly in the wind."

A lingering question yesterday was the strength of White House support for Frohnmayer. "There are some gatekeepers at the White House that are not supportive of John Frohnmayer, but they make no difference because the president is supportive of him," Williams said.

The controversy surrounding Frohnmayer and the NEA intensified this week amid reports that the chairman had fired his number two official at the agency, Alvin S. Felzenberg. While endowment officials have portrayed the split as the result of differences over style and management, Felzenberg appears to be a new standard-bearer for NEA critics. A column yesterday by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak said Felzenberg had irritated Frohnmayer by warning him "to get tougher on NEA funding for exhibits considered 'obscene.' "

Meanwhile, Felzenberg's status at the NEA is unclear. He was present at yesterday's Senate appropriations hearing, and Frohnmayer introduced him to senators by saying, "He's the senior deputy -- or at least he was."

While Felzenberg did not sit with Frohnmayer or offer testimony, he approached McClure after the hearing and said he hoped to meet with him. McClure said he was interested in talking with Felzenberg. Later, Felzenberg said that he had not been fired and he had not resigned.

The White House came up with the idea of postponing the real reauthorization fight while a congressionally mandated commission studies the endowment's procedures. The commission was supposed to have made its recommendations by April 23, but most members had not even passed White House security clearances by then.

The 12-member group met yesterday for the first time and elected New York University President John Brademas and lawyer Leonard Garment chairmen. But the commission expires Sept. 30, and the group was at odds yesterday over whether it should try to complete a report by then or put energy into asking Congress to extend its existence.

Brademas, a former U.S. representative who was an architect of the NEA, observed that Congress will not necessarily extend the commission's life, but Garment argued that the chairmen should still press for more time. With the issue unresolved, the group tentatively agreed to meet again June 25.

In another development yesterday, an attorney from the General Accounting Office testified before Williams's subcommittee that an investigation of the endowment's compliance with anti-obscenity legislation showed that "the NEA has met its legal obligations to adopt reasonable controls."

The GAO said the arts agency should clarify that it will apply Supreme Court standards in determining whether works are obscene. Further, the GAO said the endowment needs to develop guidelines explaining how it will interpret the obligations of those arts institutions that receive grants for general operations. For example, the GAO said, the NEA should offer guidance on whether a grant for a theater's administrative costs are related to performances in the theater. Finally, the GAO said the NEA should consider offering opinions to grant recipients as to whether a potential use of NEA funds might violate obscenity laws. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) had requested the GAO investigation.

Staff writers Ann Devroy and Judith Weinraub contributed to this report.