A compromise developed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, will help free the embattled National Endowment for the Arts from obscenity content rules outlining what projects it may fund.

The Senate voted 73-24 Wednesday to accept Hatch's compromise, which calls for the courts to determine what is obscene, not the NEA.The Hatch amendment requires artists whose projects are found by courts to be obscene or in violation of child pornography laws give back the tax money they spent. It also bars them from receiving more NEA funds for up to three years.

"Congress has never been successful in setting bright-line standards when the matter at hand is so subjective in nature," Hatch said. He has pointed out that some ultraconservatives would consider works by Michelangelo to be obscene.

Hatch's compromise replaced more restrictive rules adopted last year, even though powerful Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., had proposed extending them. And it overcame proposals for more strict content regulations from conservatives led by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.

Hatch's compromise - which was blasted by many fellow conservatives - became part of an $11.7 billion funding bill, passed 92-7, for the Department of Interior and related agencies, including the NEA. House-Senate differences will be worked out in conference.

Controversy over NEA grants began last year because of federal funding of erotic homosexual photos by Robert Mapplethorpe, a photo of a crucifix in urine by Andres Serrano and a live sex act show by Annie Sprinkles.

Under pressure from conservatives led by Helms, Congress forbade funding works "that may be considered obscene, including, but not limited to, depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children or individuals engaged in sex acts and which, when taken as a whole do not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value."

Hatch, the ranking member of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, had earlier persuaded that committee to adopt his same compromise as part of a bill to reauthorize the NEA for five years. But that bill languished, and a temporary one-year reauthorization was added to the funding bill.

Byrd ignored the Hatch compromise and instead continued the previous restrictions on the NEA and also required grant recipients to sign a pledge that they would comply with the rules. Such a pledge is now required by NEA rules - but not by law.

Helms complained the Hatch amendment was "just a cover-up to allow senators to say they did something (to control subsidized pornography), when in fact they have not."

Hatch - along with Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Claiborne Pell, D-R.I. - argued for the Hatch amendment saying earlier content restrictions were unconstitutional. Hatch spoke emotionally about the value of art in his life and about his childhood violin lessons.

Helms attacked, however, saying of Hatch's speech, "If there has ever been more irrelevant oratory than we have just heard . . . I have not heard it."