Weary from a bruising battle over the budget, the Senate is wading into another tough, divisive fight over whether to renew strict anti-obscenity restrictions on the National Endowment for the Arts.

The debate pits Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and his conservative allies against supporters of a bipartisan compromise proposal, which would have the courts decide whether federally supported arts projects are obscene.At issue before the Senate was an $11.7 billion appropriations bill for the Interior Department and several other federal agencies in fiscal 1991.

Action on the bill was delayed until late Friday or Saturday so the Senate can tackle more pressing end-of-session legislation, including a stopgap spending resolution.

The Senate bill ignores a House-approved compromise that would omit any explicit obscenity ban. The House bill would require the NEA to recoup its money from grant recipients who later are convicted of violating obscenity laws.

A similar judicial approach to the "obscene art" issue had been approved on a bipartisan 15-1 vote by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, but Helms effectively blocked floor action on that measure.

In a move apparently aimed at placating Helms, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to keep the NEA alive for one more year, trim its proposed $175 million budget and reinstate the strict, Helms-inspired obscenity ban for another year.

Current law forbids the endowment to finance any works that "may be considered obscene," including depictions of homosexual and sadomasochistic activities, the sexual exploitation of children and "individuals engaged in sex acts."

The House voted to scrap the obscenity restrictions and extend the NEA's authority for three years.

The Senate compromise bottled up by Helms was drafted by liberals Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and conservatives Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Nancy L. Kassebaum, R-Kan.