FOR A FEW days it looked as if a relatively reasonable compromise had been devised on the reauthorization of the National Endowment for the Arts, one that appeared to have broad support among legislators tired of the content restrictions and purity oaths of the last year. But now it has been sidetracked in the rush to adjournment, and the NEA may be saddled with the old restrictions for another year.

The dispute, fueled by the Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano uproars, centers on whether Congress should adopt detailed regulations governing the kind of art the endowment can support. Last year, Sen. Jesse Helms added language to the NEA appropriation bill that prohibits funding works that depict a variety of named sexual activities and are deemed to have no redeeming social value. Grant recipients are required to certify that they intend to comply with the restrictions.

This year, legislators for months sought language to address the perceived problem without giving the appearance of government censorship. Compromise language developed by Reps. Pat Williams and Thomas Coleman left determination of obscenity to the courts and required recipients of grants for works judged obscene to return the money to the NEA. This language is in an NEA reauthorization bill passed by the House 349-76; a somewhat different but similar measure was approved by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, 15-1. At that point, however, the bill was blocked by Sen. Helms' threat to offer a series of amendments on the floor. There is no time for that kind of debate, and so the bill was shelved.

The House then sought to accomplish the same result by amending the NEA appropriations bill. The Williams-Coleman language was added to that bill and passed by the House, but the Senate Appropriations Committee refused to go along, and reported instead a bill with the old Helms restrictions. A floor fight is expected this week and even if the NEA supporters lose in the Senate, the conferees may still take the better House language. But at best, the prospects for reform are uncertain.

It is ridiculous that a widely-accepted compromise has been blocked by a single legislator threatening to tie the Senate up during these tense last few days. The resounding vote in the House demonstrates broad support for Williams-Coleman, and it's reasonable to assume that that support exists in the Senate too. Next year, Congress should address this issue early enough to face down the threats.