A bill to reauthorize the National Endowment for the Arts was sent to the House yesterday with assurances from Speaker Thomas S. Foley that there will be ample opportunity to argue about the legislation when it reaches the floor in mid-July.

The House Education and Labor Committee agreed that simply sending a five-year reauthorization bill -- without debating restrictions on the kind of art that the endowment may fund -- is the most efficient way to handle the highly controversial legislation. But some committee members protested, with Rep. Joseph Gaydos (D-Pa.) commenting, "I personally find it incredible that we are not going to act" to impose content restrictions on the endowment.

Meanwhile, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee put off its markup of the NEA reauthorization, which had been set for today, as members tried to reach a bipartisan accord on the future of the endowment. Staffers were mum, worrying that any public comment on the negotiations could create the kind of entrenched battle that has taken place in the House. The markup is now set for June 27.

While the House is considering a raft of both content restrictions and restructuring proposals, the Senate discussions focus primarily on language restricting the type of art that may be funded by the NEA. Part of the delay seems to spring from indecision on the part of ranking GOP committee member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on content restrictions. "We're trying to figure out exactly what we want to do," said a Hatch staffer. "People are trying to write down what they think to see how it looks."

The NEA's 1990 appropriation forbids the endowment to fund art that it deems "obscene." An increasing number of institutions and individuals, including the New York Shakespeare Festival and choreographer Bella Lewitzky, have turned down NEA money because the endowment requires them to pledge compliance with that legislation. A lawsuit challenging that requirement is pending.

The fractionalization among members of the House Education Committee was evident yesterday as representatives from each side of the aisle took turns attacking or defending the endowment. Democrat Gaydos said his mail is running overwhelmingly against the endowment even though his district has received substantial amounts of NEA money, while Republican Fred Grandy of Iowa said he is "disappointed that the administration has not stood up" for NEA reauthorization without content restrictions. "I cannot sign off on language that would attempt to proscribe the human imagination because I believe it cannot be written," he said.

One proposed content restriction is being circulated by Rep. Paul Henry (R-Mich.) while another, more stringent measure comes from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). Henry's language would ban federal funding of art that would "deliberately denigrate the cultural heritage of the United States, its religious tradition or ethnic groups" while also banning funding of obscene art.

Rohrabacher's five-page proposal goes further, stating in part that funds may not be used for art that denigrates individuals "on the basis of race, sex, handicap, or national origin." The bill also would prohibit "material which employs, uses, persuades, induces, entices or coerces any minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing any visual depiction of such conduct." In addition, the proposal includes a ban on using funds to "promote, distribute, disseminate, or produce matter that includes any part of an actual human embryo or fetus."

Meanwhile, Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), chairman of the House subcommittee that launched the reauthorization process, said he and Tom Coleman (R-Mo.) will work together hoping to reach agreement on their own legislation.

Coleman and Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.) have proposed a restructuring of the NEA that would increase the share of NEA grant money to be distributed through state arts agencies from the current 20 percent to 60 percent. A bill that would be acceptable to Coleman and Williams possibly would reauthorize the NEA for three years, increase the percentage of funds distributed by state agencies -- but not as high as Coleman wants -- and include restrictive language that reiterates the Supreme Court's guidelines on obscenity. It might also penalize NEA grant recipients whose work leads to an obscenity conviction but would not attempt to describe the types of art that may not be funded.

Williams said he and Coleman met with Foley yesterday morning to set the terms of the debate on the House floor. "The speaker made very clear today that he wants to avoid a process which puts members through interminable introduction of dozens of amendments on everything from body parts to sadomasochism," he said.

He said the rule governing debate on the bill would impose "some kind of restraint" on the debate but would allow "significant amendments."

Williams said he expects the reauthorization to pass in some form but added, "It may well be that the NEA will never be the same regardless of what happens with this bill." He said NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer may veto several potentially controversial grants. An NEA spokesman said Frohnmayer would not comment. The chairman has been generally unavailable since a meeting at the White House last week.