Like true sausage makers, Congress has assembled and passed legislation extending the life of the National Endowment for the Arts for an unexpected three years while revamping the endowment's grant-making procedures in ways that neither the agency nor the legislators understand fully.

The deal cut in the waning hours of the congressional session seems likely to subdue the seemingly endless controversy over federal funding of the arts but not to quell it altogether. Like most compromises -- particularly those that emerge in an atmosphere of haste, fatigue and political pragmatism -- this one leaves constituents on both ends of the spectrum feeling frustrated and unhappy.

The endowment's adversaries think the NEA has not been harnessed adequately by the legislation's requirement that grants be awarded "taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public."

Arts groups think that language may be preferable to a list of forbidden subject matter that had been imposed by Congress during the past year, but they contend that the decency provision in the new legislation is unconstitutionally vague. The National Campaign for Freedom of Expression promptly said that the new law turns NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer into "the federal government's principal arts censor."

The NEA dilemma was abruptly resolved after a struggle that began last spring. Congress started the session facing two tasks: deciding whether and in what circumstances to renew the legislation that authorizes the agency's existence, and then passing a funding bill.

Last year, controversy flared during the appropriations process and Congress attached a list of content restrictions to the NEA's fiscal 1990 funding bill. The endowment then required grant recipients to sign a pledge of compliance with those restrictions. Several arts groups rejected NEA money and three pending lawsuits challenge the constitutionality of the certification requirement. The fate of that requirement is unclear under the new legislation.

The upcoming elections only fueled the controversy. NEA critics had a resonant high-concept issue: no tax dollars for pornography and/or blasphemy. The evangelical right -- led by the Rev. Donald Wildmon and Pat Robertson -- cranked up massive letter-writing campaigns. Members of Congress who might have been favorably disposed to the endowment or who otherwise might have paid little attention to the issue were deluged with mail calling for the abolition of the agency.

NEA supporters in Congress faced the formidable challenge of shepherding two sets of legislation -- the reauthorization and the appropriation -- through subcommittees, past full committees and to the floors of both houses. And that is where the endowment's archenemies -- Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in the Senate and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) in the House -- were waiting. Neither is a member of the committees or subcommittees that have jurisdiction over the endowment.

The battle got underway in the House with the reauthorization bill, specifically in the post-secondary education subcommittee chaired by Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.). As the legislation finally moved toward passage Saturday afternoon, Williams described the struggle as "the most nasty, difficult and thoroughly enjoyable of my life."

Williams had hoped for a straightforward five-year reauthorization of the endowment without any content restrictions. In March, President Bush backed that approach. But that support soon crumbled and the White House signaled that it would support content restrictions on the endowment. Williams's chances of getting his subcommittee to support a "clean" reauthorization vanished -- especially when two Republican members, Tom Coleman of Missouri and Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin, came up with their own proposal to restructure the agency drastically and shift 60 percent of its grant money to state arts councils.

Ultimately, Williams could not pull together a core of support for any legislative approach. His straightforward reauthorization bill was approved by his subcommittee and then by the full Committee on Education and Labor, with the understanding that the fireworks would come when the bill reached the House floor. Coleman would fight for his plan and Rohrabacher would try to impose a series of content restrictions and another effort would be made by Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) to abolish the endowment altogether.

As matters stalled in the House, staffers on the Senate side spent months negotiating over reauthorization legislation behind closed doors. Finally they emerged with a bill free of content restrictions. Instead, they created a penalty mechanism that enabled the endowment to recoup funds from those convicted in court on obscenity or child pornography charges. Such grant recipients would also be barred from receiving new grants for three years. The Labor and Human Resources Committee approved the bill 15 to 1, with strong bipartisan support.

With that as a spur to the House, Williams and Coleman announced in early October that they had hammered out a compromise reauthorization bill extending the endowment for three years. The bill followed the Senate model by requiring those convicted on obscenity charges to repay their grant money to the NEA. The compromise kept some elements of the restructuring first proposed by Coleman, but the amount of funds shifted to state arts agencies was reduced to 27.5 percent.

The House compromise also included the decency provision. Williams opposed it but sentiment for such language was strong in the House. So Williams incorporated a phrase calling on the endowment to recognize "the diverse beliefs and values" of the public in the hope that the phrase would counteract, to some degree, the restrictive effect of the decency provision. "One can teach those words round or flat," he explained. Nonetheless, he said, the decency language could provoke some litigation.

After months of contentious debate, the compromise reauthorization bill passed the House Oct. 12 by a surprising 349 to 76 margin. Rohrabacher's attempts to add restrictions were defeated easily.

But having sparked the House to act on reauthorization, the Senate could not find time to vote on its own version of the bill. By now it was mid-October and the Senate was overwhelmed with other legislation -- and little time remained in the session. With Helms waiting in the wings, no one wanted to bring the NEA reauthorization to the Senate floor and face a protracted fight.

With that, reauthorization seemed dead and the focus shifted to the appropriation bill. Rather than revive the entire controversy, the House passed a funding bill and simply attached the entire reauthorization bill -- replete with the three-year extension of the endowment, the decency language, the obscenity penalty provisions, the shift in funding and other procedural reforms.

From there, the funding bill went to the Senate, where it ran directly into Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). Byrd had made it clear that he didn't like some of the art funded by the endowment and that he supported content restrictions. Virtually without opposition, he stripped the House legislation from the appropriation bill and substituted the list of content restrictions that had been imposed in fiscal 1990.

Members of the Senate who had negotiated long and hard to reach a compromise over the NEA reauthorization were not prepared to see controversial content restrictions imposed again without a fight. When the appropriation bill got to the Senate floor, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) led the battle to eliminate the content restrictions imposed by Byrd and substitute the penalty provisions for violations of obscenity law.

Hatch succeeded, defeating an effort by Helms to reestablish restrictions on sexually explicit art. At the last minute, Helms won voice-vote approval of a religion restriction, but Senate sources said that measure had weak support and would be eliminated when House and Senate conferees met shortly thereafter to iron out differences in their respective versions of the appropriation bill. According to Hill aides, the provision was nothing more than a bargaining chip in the last-minute appropriations horse-trading. In fact, that provision disappeared without comment in the conference.

The conferees met Friday night. The Senate bill was a straightforward funding bill with a penalty provision but no content restriction. The House bill included the entire Williams-Coleman compromise. Staffers and lobbyists weren't sure what to expect, but they were guessing that the conferees would agree to the simpler Senate bill. The fight, they predicted, would come over the decency language.

The key House conferee, Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), opposed the provision. But Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) was committed to it and threatened to hold up the bill if the provision were deleted. By Friday night, no one wanted to see the bill get bogged down again.

The result was that the Senate conferees simply accepted the House version of the appropriation bill with scarcely a word of public discussion. Byrd complained briefly that he believed in content restrictions but wasn't sure how to write them.

Yates found himself in the peculiar position of making a couple of attempts to get the House conferees to push for the simpler Senate version of the bill. He had virtually no support. "My guys thought we ought to stand up for the House bill," he said later. "I think maybe some of them thought the whole bill would ride smoothly through the House, particularly with the Regula threat."

The surprising result was that, with the reauthorization bill dead in the Senate, the endowment has nonetheless been reauthorized for three years. "Everyone in this Congress has noted that means we will reauthorize the endowment next time outside of an election year," Williams noted over the weekend. "That'll help a lot."

NEA spokesman Jack Lichtenstein said endowment officials are surprised and "absolutely delighted" at the reauthorization. He acknowledged that the NEA hasn't yet analyzed the impact of the procedural reforms in the new legislation, which will alter the makeup of grant review panels. "We're just going to have to sort through those," he said. One key question is whether the endowment will drop the controversial requirement that grant recipients pledge compliance with the legislation restrictions on the type of art that may be funded, now reduced to the vague language of the decency provision.

In the next several months, the focus will be shifted away from the Hill to the NEA. Congressional supporters like Williams and Yates acknowledge that the bitter struggle on the Hill has taken its toll on the agency. Frohnmayer has vetoed several potentially controversial grants and many arts groups contend that the endowment has been muzzled even without explicit content restrictions.

"Whether or not the NEA now survives and prospers is a question that's going to be answered only by the endowment itself," Williams said. "If {grant review} panelists are going to look over their shoulders at Capitol Hill and public opinion every time they make a decision, it will be clear that the endowment has been badly bruised, if not beaten."