WASHINGTON — The National Endowment for the Arts may be under attack on Capitol Hill, but that didn’t stop the federal arts agency from awarding its prestigious National Medal of Arts to nine artists including actors Angela Lansbury and Jason Robards and musicians Doc Watson, Betty Carter and Tito Puente.

The awards will be handed out by President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at a White House ceremony this morning. Others slated to receive the arts medal are sculptor Louise Bourgeois, arts patron Agnes Gund, landscape architect Daniel Urban Kiley, New York Metropolitan Opera director James Levine, Miami City Ballet director Edward Villella and the MacDowell Colony, a New Hampshire arts colony.

The Clintons will also be handing out National Humanities Medals to a diverse group that includes the Eagles’ Don Henley and philanthropist Paul Mellon. Henley was cited by the NEA for his philanthropy and his work on behalf of the environment.

Both the National Medal of the Arts and the National Humanities Medal are among the nation’s highest awards for artistic and cultural work.

The NEA, which is responsible for finding the National Medal of the Arts nominees, is still in the midst of a tough fight for survival in Congress. In a nonbinding vote last week, the House expressed support for funding the NEA at the $100 million level recommended by the Senate. Last week’s vote comes after the House already decided to gut the NEA’s entire budget.

While no one expects the NEA to be killed off, Congress is expected to tamper with the formula the NEA uses to allocate its arts grants. Many observers expect Congress to order the NEA to increase the percentage of its budget it sets aside for state arts groups. Currently, the NEA spends 35% of its budget on state projects and one proposal called on the agency to raise local spending to 75% of its budget.

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