After weeks of delay, House subcommittee negotiators announced yesterday that they had reached a bipartisan compromise on reauthorizing legislation for the National Endowment for the Arts and that they expect the bill to reach the House floor next Wednesday or Thursday.

House postsecondary education subcommittee Chairman Pat Williams (D-Mont.) said yesterday that he believed the compromise, which includes no content restrictions, "will be passed by a significant majority of both Democrats and Republicans." The compromise will be offered on the floor as a substitute to an earlier version passed by the full committee that had drawn at least two dozen proposed amendments.

The new bill resembles the Senate version in many -- but not all -- respects. Like the Senate bill, it deals with the question of obscenity in works funded by grants by leaving it up to the courts. Grant recipients found guilty of obscenity would have to return all NEA funds and would be barred from receiving other NEA grants for three years.

Unlike the Senate bill, the House version would raise the portion of NEA funds that go directly to state arts organizations from 20 percent to 35 percent during the next three years. Subcommittee ranking Republican Thomas Coleman of Missouri had originally called for a hike of from 20 percent to 60 percent, but acquiesced to the smaller increase.

The bill also calls for the NEA to fund art "taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." It would reauthorize the embattled agency for three years instead of five and require the NEA to modify its application procedures and more stringently monitor how artists are using their grants.

Coleman called the bill "the most comprehensive change in the endowment in its 25-year history." He said it "reformed" the grantmaking process by taking some responsibility away from the panels of artists who now recommend grant recipients and amounts, placing more power in the hands of the chairman and the presidentially appointed National Council on the Arts, which advises the chairman.

Coleman, Williams and subcommittee member Rep. Paul Henry (R-Mich.) said they expect their bill will not satisfy the strongest critics of the agency. "We didn't try to outdo Rohrabacher," Coleman said, referring to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who has led the House fight against the NEA and who plans to continue the battle when the bill reaches the floor. "We have a consensus position and we think it's strong."

Williams said: "The heart of the issue is: Are we as members of the House of Representatives going to hold ourselves up to be the determiners of appropriate art or decent art? No, we are going to leave it to the courts."

The bill declares that "obscenity is without artistic merit and is not protected speech," and Williams said he believes that language would render unnecessary the current anti-obscenity pledge that NEA grant recipients are now required to sign. The pledge has outraged many artists, and a number of them have refused grants rather than sign it.

The three-year reauthorization, rather than the Senate's five, was designed to "attract support from some people who would like to have the endowment on a shorter rather than a longer leash," said Williams.

The compromise received a mixed review from both critics and supporters of the NEA.

Rohrabacher said the compromise "means business as usual at the NEA. This does not offer any standard that's going to prevent any of the things that enraged the American people last year."

Washington Project for the Arts board Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick expressed restrained approval. "The sanctions {for an artist convicted of obscenity} are draconian, very severe and probably more severe than warranted, but on balance if this bill can be enacted I think it will be both constitutional and an appropriate response to the problems."

Joy Silverman, associate director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression artists' coalition, was concerned, however, about the requirement that grant recipients submit reports as they progress on their funded work. "I don't feel very good about it," she said. "For an artist to have to be monitored every step of the way -- it's going to be very hard."