The House Appropriations Committee yesterday completed work on a bill that would boost funding of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kennedy Center and includes no content restrictions on NEA-supported material. But objections raised by several committee members outlined the shape that debate over the embattled agency may soon take on the floor of the House.

Interior subcommittee Chairman Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) fought off two amendments that would have restricted the NEA, arguing that such matters should be addressed during an upcoming debate on reauthorization of the agency. Meanwhile, negotiators working on a reauthorization compromise revealed some details of their discussions to House colleagues and said they expected to take their bill to the floor later this week.

During the appropriations meeting, the subcommittee's ranking Republican, Ralph Regula of Ohio, offered an amendment that would require the NEA to "ensure" that any funded art "is sensitive to the nature of public sponsorship ... and is appropriate for a general audience." Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) proposed that the agency be prevented from spending allocated funds until its much-delayed reauthorization bill is signed into law.

Regula withdrew his amendment after some debate but reserved the right to reintroduce it on the House floor. DeLay's amendment was defeated on a voice vote.

This year's bill drops the prohibition on NEA funding of art the agency deems "obscene," a provision written into last year's appropriations bill as part of a House-Senate compromise. In fact, the current bill does not allow the NEA to ask grant applicants to sign any "affidavits respecting the content of a product of a grant" -- a reference to a controversial form now sent to NEA grant applicants requiring them to agree to the prohibition on "obscene" material.

"My own personal feeling is they ought not to send it out," Yates said later about the NEA form, which has been criticized by artists, some of whom have refused their grants rather than sign the document.

Yates told the committee yesterday that he had repeatedly postponed full-committee consideration of the Interior bill, hoping a delay would give the NEA reauthorizing committee time to resolve the controversy.

Yesterday, Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), chairman of the subcommittee overseeing reauthorization, circulated a letter to his House colleagues outlining his negotiations with Rep. Tom Coleman (R-Mo.), the subcommittee's ranking Republican. Among the points in the letter was a proposal to boost NEA funding of state arts programs and to support a Senate plan that includes no content restrictions but would require grant recipients to return their NEA money if convicted of violating obscenity laws.

Coleman originally called for a hike in state arts funding from 20 to 60 percent of the NEA's total allocation, but the letter mentioned only a leap from 20 to 27 percent. Williams said, however, that he and Coleman have not reached a final agreement.

During the appropriations markup, Regula introduced his amendment by saying, "I think the American people generally do not want public funds ... used for projects that do not appeal to the broad section of the American public."

Regula's proposal would have prohibited the NEA from funding material deemed "obscene" according to standards set by the Supreme Court's Miller v. California case, or "indecent" according to the court's finding in Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation.

Critics of the amendment asked how the NEA would determine what art was "appropriate for a general audience," as Regula's proposal would require, and argued that the FCC case -- which concerned a radio network -- does not apply to the support of art.

DeLay said his amendment "puts pressure" on those who have delayed the reauthorization debate and was necessary because "we've been promised time and time again that reauthorization would be on the floor." Rep. Bob Carr (D-Mich.), chairman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, countered that "there is a group of people who really want to abolish the NEA, and that's what this amendment is about."

No changes were made yesterday in the arts funding levels proposed by the Appropriations interior subcommittee. The full committee raised no objection to a one-time $15 million appropriation to help the Kennedy Center retire its debt, or to the $180 million allocation to the NEA, $5 million more than the administration's request and $9 million more than it received last year. The Smithsonian would receive $313.4 million, exceeding the administration's $307.7 million request.

The Appropriations Committee passed the bill on a voice vote and sent it to the floor.