Legislation to reauthorize the National Endowment for the Arts may have gotten on track in the Senate yesterday when the Labor and Human Resources Committee voted 15 to 1 for the bill, adding a provision allowing the endowment to get its money back from any grant recipient convicted of violating obscenity or child pornography laws.

The penalty provisions in the five-year reauthorization bill are less stringent than several proposals under consideration in the House. The Senate bill leaves determination of obscenity to the courts rather than requiring the endowment to make such evaluations. The bill contains no anti-obscenity language and it does not list forbidden subject matter.

The bipartisan support for the bill -- with its laboriously worked-out approach to the sensitive content-restriction issue -- may mean that the committee has found a way tomake peace in the seemingly endless struggle over the endowment. "Who knows?" said Orrin Hatch (Utah), the ranking Republican on the committee and a key supporter of the compromise. "It's a very politically charged issue and some people around here are afraid of their own shadows."

Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), chairman of the subcommittee on education, arts and humanities, said he would vote for the penalty provisions even though he would rather omit them. "I recognize the political imperatives, the realities of where we are," he said. "... It's my hope that the full Senate will appreciate this and echo our actions."

Some endowment critics worried that the measures might not go far enough. Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) unsuccessfully offered an amendment to prohibit the endowment from funding obscene works or ones that attack "historically religious traditions, tenets, symbols or figures." Only Coats and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) supported that language, prompting Thurmond to warn, "We are going to have a terrible fight on the floor." But Hatch said he thinks the Senate bill can survive in its current form.

Senate staffers could not say when the bill would reach the full Senate but said it would take at least a week. First, the committee will issue a report clarifying the legislation and expressing opposition to the endowment's controversial requirement that grant recipients sign a pledge that they won't use federal funds to create "obscene" works.

(In a related development, the Newport Harbor Art Museum in Newport Beach, Calif., filed suit in federal court yesterday challenging that requirement. Two similar suits are already pending in federal court.)

On the House side, the endowment is still in a legislative quagmire. The House Appropriations Committee yesterday canceled a markup of the endowment's money bill and an aide said the session wouldn't be rescheduled this week. The committee was expecting a number of amendments to restrict the endowment.

The Senate bill would empower the endowment to demand repayment from "the individual or organization which created or produced {a} project or production found to be obscene or to violate child pornography laws." The grant recipient would be ineligible for NEA funds for three years or longer if the grant money is not repaid.

The NEA could demand repayment from a state, local or regional arts agency that funneled endowment money to an artist or organization if that artist or group was subsequently convicted of producing obscene work and couldn't repay the money. The Senate bill also includes some procedural reforms and authorizes more funding for arts education.