In a sharp election-year conversion, the House on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved money for the National Endowment for the Arts, long the scourge of conservatives and a prime target of Republican leaders.

The vote of 253 to 173 virtually guarantees that one way or another, the arts agency will continue to receive the $98 million it received this fiscal year, even though the money is attached to a more controversial bill financing the Interior Department. The Senate has indicated support for the arts money, and President Clinton has said he wants it, too.Tuesday's vote - supported by 58 Republicans, 194 Democrats and one Independent - was foreshadowed by a committee vote last month that approved the money and rejected the Republican doctrine against using taxpayer money for the arts. Still, arts organizations were relieved.

"The old debate over the existence of the NEA finally has given way to a more thoughtful dialogue about the appropriate level of federal arts funding in America," William Ivey, the new chairman of the endowment, said in a statement.

Tuesday's vote for the popular arts subsidy reflects the moderating influence of a pending election. Republicans had also provided themselves political cover by approving a number of changes last year that they said would reduce concerns they had previously.

The restrictions include broadening the distribution of grants to more than just a few urban areas and building in safeguards against the financing of artistic works that many conservatives deemed obscene.