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House negotiators said Tuesday they were close to a deal that would let the courts decide whether artists getting grants from the National Endowment for the Arts had violated obscenity laws.

The deal would generally follow a formula approved in the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee last week, said Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont.Williams and Rep. E. Thomas Coleman, R-Mo., are the key players in trying to reach a draft that can command wide support in the House.

The Senate compromise would require grant recipients convicted of obscenity violations to give back the money and be barred from further grants for three years.

The House planned to begin debate Thursday on a proposed five-year extension of the arts endowment, whose legal authority to operate expires Sunday with the end of the fiscal year.

Strict anti-obscenity curbs imposed on the endowment last fall at the urging of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., also will lapse with the fiscal year unless renewed.

The House Appropriations Committee Tuesday rebuffed an attempt by its chairman, Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., to approve a non-binding recommendation against financing ``any indecent, anti-religious or obscene picture, play or writing.'

On a voice vote, the committee eliminated a proposal from an emergency stopgap appropriations bill intended to keep the federal government operating at current spending levels for the first three weeks of the new fiscal year, or until Oct. 20, and to provide $2 billion for U.S. military operations in the Persian Gulf.

The effect of the bill, later approved and sent to the House floor, was to continue the endowment temporarily at the level of its current, $171 million budget, with the Helms anti-obscenity curbs intact.

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