WASHINGTON — The House Thursday narrowly backed a Republican effort to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, branded by conservatives as an elite group that bankrolls immoral art.
On a cliffhanger vote of 217-216, the House cleared the way for a vote to replace the NEA, which distributes direct grants for the arts, with $80 million in block grants to school districts and state arts councils.
A number of Democrats said they expected the White House, and the Senate ultimately, would save the agency that they say is essential for bringing art to smaller communities and poor areas.
The White House threatened to veto a $13 billion spending bill that is largely for parks and natural resource programs if it contained the plan to replace or kill the NEA.
If the House rejects the block grants in a vote to be held today, the House bill simply would slash NEA funds and provide no alternative arts support.
Democrats lost their effort to force a vote on their plan, which would have restored the $100 million to operate the NEA next year that Republicans had slashed to $10 million, which is enough to cover the costs of closing the agency.
Democrats said the plan to replace the NEA with block grants would rip the heart out of public support for the arts.
“The rule we are considering today will kill for all time the National Endowment for the Arts. With this rule they are killing federal support for the arts,” Massachusetts Democrat Joe Moakley said.
House Republican Leader Dick Armey of Texas blasted the NEA as an “art elite” that picks and chooses which works the public will fund. He called it “the single most deplorable black eye on the arts.”
“We believe the NEA is not going to be reformed and we ask that it be eliminated,” Patrick Trueman, of the American Family Assn., said, adding that the NEA funds material that is pornographic.
“With this vote, the religious right is one step closer to claiming this important agency for its trophy case,” Carole Shields, president of People for the American Way Action Fund, said in a statement.