A House committee voted Tuesday to keep the National Endowment for the Arts alive for two more years, fending off an effort to abolish the agency.

The Education and Labor Committee’s action also re-authorizes the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum Services for two more years.

On a 37-3 vote, the panel defeated an amendment by Rep. Richard Armey, R-Texas, to abolish all three agencies and their umbrella agency, the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities. Armey said the $ 350 million in funding for the programs would be better spent on Head Start, the preschool education program.

“The government should not be in the business of authenticating art and literature,” Armey argued. With a projected $ 320 billion budget deficit, the government can’t afford the programs, he said.

NEA, in particular, has been a favorite target in recent years of conservative groups that claimed it was funding obscene works of art with taxpayer dollars.

Last year, President Bush fired NEA director John Frohnmayer amid the mounting controversy.

Three years ago, Congress passed and Bush signed into law a requirement that NEA consider “general standards of decency” when awarding grants to artists.

A federal judge declared the restriction unconstitutional in 1992, but the Bush administration appealed the ruling. Last March, the Clinton administration reiterated the decency policy and the Justice Department filed papers in support of the appeal.

Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., said “not even my mother would vote for me” if she supported terminating NEA and NEH, programs that have helped fund such projects as the design for the Vietnam Memorial, the Civil War series featured on public television and televised specials from the Kennedy Center.

Voting with Armey were Republicans Thomas Petri of Wisconsin and Peter Hoekstra of Michigan.

The two-year extensions for the three agencies were included in a bill reauthorizing the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities.

The committee meeting at one point erupted into an angry exchange between Republicans and Democrats over an attempt by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., to block increases in federal arts grants to any state that reduced its arts funding.