After months of acrimonious debate, the House voted 349-76 yesterday to reauthorize the National Endowment for the Arts for three years.

The bill that finally attracted broad support was a compromise crafted by Reps. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) and Thomas Coleman (R-Mo.). It imposes no explicit content restrictions on work that may be funded by the NEA, but creates penalties for artists whose NEA-funded works are found obscene by a court.

The penalties, however, are milder than those initially contemplated by Williams and Coleman. Their original version of the bill would have allowed the NEA to recoup its funds and ban the grant recipient from receiving further NEA money for three years. But in a voice vote on a proposal by Rep. Fred Grandy (R-Iowa), the House eliminated the three-year ban.

The focus now shifts to the Senate, where a similar reauthorization bill awaits action. The legislation could come up next week although there is no guarantee that the Senate will vote on it before Congress adjourns. The target date for adjournment is Oct. 19.

Coleman said the margin of victory in the House should help propel the reauthorization bill through the Senate without content restrictions that are likely to be introduced by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

If the endowment is not reauthorized, it presumably would operate for a year through an appropriations bill. Still unclear is whether Congress will impose content restrictions through the appropriation, as it did in fiscal 1990. The appropriations bill is set to come to the House floor today.

Williams and Coleman said they were surprised by the lopsided vote. "It's a bigger victory in favor of tolerance and freedom of expression than I frankly expected," Williams said. He said that six months ago he thought the reauthorization might be defeated.

Coleman said the success of the compromise legislation shows "you can work the system so the middle holds and the extremes don't have to prevail."

The House-approved legislation requires the NEA chairman to ensure that grants will be awarded "taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public."

The bill also modifies NEA grant-making procedures and raises the amount of NEA grant money funneled to state arts agencies from the current level of 20 percent to 27.5 percent.

The vote on the Williams-Coleman bill came after the House voted 361-64 to defeat a measure introduced by Rep. Philip Crane (R-Ill.) to eliminate the endowment.

The House also defeated, 249-175, a proposal by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) to forbid funding of artworks depicting "sexually explicit conduct" including "bestiality; masturbation; sadistic or masochistic abuse" and more. The legislation would have forbidden works that defiled the flag or used "any part of an actual human embryo or fetus."

Coleman said he was gratified that 58 Republicans voted against Rohrabacher's proposal. "They've been under tremendous pressure ... and I'm very proud that they stood up," he said.

After months of overheated rhetoric, the debate on the House floor was noticeably low on energy. One of the few flurries came when Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.) tried to show Robert Mapplethorpe photographs on the floor but was refused permission.

"It now becomes clear, Mr. Speaker, that in this taxpayer-supported institution, there are in fact limits on freedom of expression," Walker said.

Otherwise, the combatants continued to throw allegations at one another, but with a marked weariness. The usual images were invoked -- child pornography on the one side and Vaclav Havel on the other -- but without the rancor that has characterized the debate during the past year.

Sponsors of the successful compromise legislation had been allotted an hour to debate the measure but gave up half that time because members were all talked out.

As the Crane and Rohrabacher proposals were debated, NEA backers repeatedly observed that only a handful of the 85,000 grants approved by the endowment have proved controversial. "I defy anyone in this chamber to find me a federal agency that's had a better record of success," said Grandy.

Rep. Bob Carr (D-Mich.), chairman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, warned, "The thought police of America are represented in this Congress ... and are trying to restrict artistic expression in America today."

But Rep. Ron Marlenee (R-Mont.) said the endowment has subsidized repugnant works "and the only solution is to reject the whole mess."

And Crane argued that when Congress is "tightening all these designated belts," funding the NEA is "an outrage."

Rohrabacher agreed and said if the NEA was to be reauthorized, Congress should at least impose a higher standard of accountability to prevent funding of pornographic works.