House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) yesterday postponed a scheduled floor fight on legislation to reauthorize the National Endowment for the Arts, meaning that the matter will not come up until after the August recess. The issue now will have to be crammed into the House's crowded schedule before Congress's scheduled adjournment in October.

Several sources on Capitol Hill said the postponement reflected a lack of confidence in the outcome of the debate and a failure to find a consensus that would be palatable to Democrats. "I think the truth is they're in a hell of a jam," said one Hill staffer. "There hasn't been an agreement worked out to date." Members of Congress have submitted 26 proposed amendments to the reauthorizing legislation.

Sources offered different appraisals on the likely success of a Republican bill proposing a major restructuring of the endowment. That proposal, developed by Reps. Tom Coleman (R-Mo.) and Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), would funnel 60 percent of NEA grant money to state arts agencies. But that proposed legislation reportedly was unacceptable to Foley in its current form -- and Coleman has refused so far to negotiate.

Meanwhile, a House Appropriations subcommittee yesterday marked up a bill that included $180 million for the NEA -- a $9 million increase over last year's level -- and funded two other embattled cultural institutions: the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center.

Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), chairman of the House subcommittee that launched the NEA reauthorization process, said he still hopes to bring the bill to the floor. But he acknowledged that the House's schedule is likely to be packed in September. "It will be a matter of shoehorning it in," he said.

Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles the endowment, said he is prepared to attach language to the endowment's 1991 appropriation that restricts the type of art that may be federally funded. "I feel that the authorization should go ahead of the appropriation and at this point that's still the plan... . I think it's poor policy not to resolve it."

But he added: "It's a difficult issue. The easiest thing to do is put it off. If it's put off too long, we'll have to resolve it in appropriation." Some Hill sources have speculated that the fight over reauthorization might be postponed indefinitely and the endowment's life could be extended for a year through a catch-all money bill. Regula observed that such a delay would enable a special commission created last year to study the NEA to complete its task.

The subcommittee postponed consideration of restrictive language for the NEA until the full committee meets, probably in the next 10 days.

The subcommittee recommended $180 million for the endowment, $5 million more than its request and $9 million more than it received last year.

It also approved a $15 million appropriation to help the Kennedy Center retire its debt. But Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.) flagged the matter for further discussion, saying Congress has not previously subsidized the Kennedy Center. Subcommittee chairman Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) said later he expects that funding to remain intact in the bill. James Wolfensohn, chairman of the performing arts center, has made it clear that he considers that funding essential to the center's survival.

The subcommittee also okayed $313.4 million for the Smithsonian, exceeding the institution's $307.7 million request. The additional money includes $2.7 million for repairs and restoration and the balance is in the institution's operating budget. Smithsonian Secretary Robert Adams has recently fired his second in command, Dean Anderson, and warned that the institution anticipates major restructuring and retrenchment in the face of deep budget cuts. Reaction on the appropriation subcommittee to those developments was mixed.

Yates expressed concern about "plummeting morale" at the Smithsonian and distress over Anderson's firing. He said he has asked members of Congress who are on the Smithsonian's board of regents to look into the matter.

He disputed the perception that the Smithsonian is in a financial crisis, observing that the institution is getting more money than it sought. At the same time, he noted that the Smithsonian's budget has burgeoned in recent years. He suggested that the institution may be overly committed to new construction.

Regula gave more credence to the notion that the Smithsonian is facing a serious financial crunch. "I think they should collect more fees, personally," he said. "I think they should do more of that in their own interest because money's going to be short for the foreseeable future." He said the current Dinamation exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History -- the first for which the Smithsonian has imposed an admission fee -- was a good test run for that approach.

Turning to the NEA, Regula said he has joined with Rep. Paul Henry (R-Mich.), who drafted restrictive language that would require the endowment to fund art that 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." His proposed language also would forbid the endowment to fund "obscene" or "indecent" art.

Even if the NEA's reauthorization gets to the House floor, Regula said he would still try to include restrictive language on the appropriation. But subcommittee chairman Yates said he still hopes to avoid any restrictions on the endowment in its appropriation.

The endowment's fiscal 1990 appropriation includes a controversial restriction forbidding it to fund art that may be deemed obscene, including "sadomasochism, homoeroticism {and} the sexual exploitation of children." The constitutionality of that language is being challenged in two suits pending in federal court.