IT ISN'T often that Sen. Jesse Helms is defeated so soundly by his colleagues when a matter of importance comes up late in the session. The North Carolina Republican has often been able to get his way when time is short simply by threatening to delay consideration of legislation he doesn't like. Last week it appeared that he was going to be able to work his will on a bill reauthorizing the National Endowment for the Arts. When less horrendous language than he favors concerning obscenity was adopted by the House and reported 15-1 by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, he announced that he would have a lot to say on the floor and a number of amendments to offer, so the bill was shelved.

NEA supporters were savvy enough to attach the same language to the Interior appropriations bill, which contains the arts funds. It passed the House, but the Senate Appropriations Committee, fearing another Helms harangue, dropped the House provision and agreed to send the money bill to the floor with the restrictions the senator sought. In spite of this setback, good sense prevailed on the floor, where Wednesday the preferable House language on obscenity was substituted for the Helms restrictions. An additional Helms amendment, which was accepted late in the evening on a voice vote, is not expected to survive the conference.

Sen. Helms continued to insist that Congress spell out in detail exactly what kind of art would not be subsidized and require that grant applicants sign affidavits in advance promising to comply with the restrictions. His opponents provided more leeway for administrators and artists to use their judgment. There are aspects of the bill we still consider misguided. But the Senate did well not to go along with Sen. Helms. A better bill, still to be tidied up in conference, is now pretty certain.