Rep. Paul B. Henry (R-Mich.) yesterday circulated a proposal banning federal funding of art that would "deliberately denigrate the cultural heritage of the United States, its religious tradition or racial or ethnic groups." The National Endowment for the Arts also could not support art that would "violate prevailing standards of obscenity or indecency."

While the arts community is opposed to any content restrictions, Henry said yesterday that he has talked with a broad spectrum of House members and "received encouragement" regarding his proposal. An influential member of the House subcommittee handling the NEA reauthorization, Henry met earlier in the week with NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer and White House officials to seek resolution of the ongoing NEA controversy.

Rep. Tom Coleman (R-Mo.), ranking Republican on the House post-secondary education subcommittee, gave qualified support to the language. But subcommittee Chairman Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) said he opposes the Henry proposal and doubts that it is constitutional.

NEA officials did not comment on Henry's language. But Henry said he discussed the proposal with Frohnmayer yesterday. "I think he recognizes it as a good-faith attempt, far preferable to attempting to create a statutory definition of obscenity or indecency," Henry said. "Personally, he would just as soon have no {restrictive} language. He also recognizes that politically, that is no longer on the table."

Meanwhile, Williams and Coleman agreed that the full House Education and Labor Committee next week would avoid the controversial issues and send a five-year reauthorization bill without art-content restrictions to the House for debate. The legislation should reach the floor in mid-July, they said.

Rep. William Goodling (R-Pa.), the ranking Republican on the full committee, said he expects GOP committee members to have their own legislation ready by then. "I want us to do our fighting prior to going to the floor," he said. But he said reaching consensus will be difficult even among the Republicans because "we have them all over the block" on the NEA controversy.

On the Senate side, a subcommittee agreed unanimously yesterday to send a five-year reauthorization bill without content restrictions to the full Labor and Human Resources Committee, where the issues will be debated. A Senate staffer said members of the committee hope to reach accord on a bill, but he acknowledged that the situation is volatile. "They're going to try to come up with something. That's the agreement as of today... . It may be impossible, but that's the agreement now," he said.

One member of the Labor subcommittee, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), is soliciting comments on ideas that include requiring NEA to pay attorneys' fees for anyone who wins an obscenity suit against an NEA-funded artist, prohibiting artists who create obscene works from receiving federal grants for 10 years and requiring NEA to set standards to prevent funding of art that is "obscene or racist or denigrates a particular religion."

The White House, which initially sought a five-year reauthorization of the NEA without content restrictions and then asked for a one-year reauthorization to serve as a "cooling-off period," has given up its efforts to avoid restrictive language. At the same time, administration officials have stressed that they do not want to negotiate the restrictions but want Congress to resolve the issue.

"The White House is being very careful at this point not to get involved in saying, 'I support this language or that language,' " Henry said.

The NEA's 1990 appropriation forbids the endowment to fund work that it deems "obscene," including "sadomasochism, homoeroticism {and} the sexual exploitation of children." Several major arts institutions have refused endowment funds because they were asked to sign pledges of compliance. A lawsuit is pending.

The language circulated by Henry states: "The Chairman and the National Council for the Arts shall insure that any award, grant, loan or other form of support provided under this act demonstrates a commitment to artistic excellence which is sensitive to the nature of public sponsorship, and does not deliberately denigrate the cultural heritage of the United States, its religious traditions, or racial or ethnic groups. The Chairman and the National Council for the Arts shall insure that any award, grant, loan or other form of support provided under this act does not violate prevailing standards of obscenity or indecency."

The language bears some similarities to an unsuccessful proposal introduced by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) last year. The Helms amendment included provisions forbidding NEA support for art "which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or non-religion; or material which denigrates, debases or reviles a person, group, or class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age or national origin."

Coleman said Henry's language could find a place in an NEA reform package that would include other measures to restructure the endowment. "I think something like this -- and I'm not saying word for word, but the direction and general content -- I think we could make room for something like this in our proposal," he said.

Williams said Henry's language is "a good try but I think it would lend itself to constitutional mischief. It's vague. And to be any firmer is censorship." Williams said he would support legislation authorizing the NEA to penalize grant recipients whose work leads to an obscenity conviction.