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Mr. Schatz said that Mr. Santorum’s record in Congress earned him a strong 80 percent rating from CAGW, “which is what we consider a taxpayer hero.”

During Mr. Santorum’s 16 years in office, Congress spent some $2 billion on NEA.

Michael Franc, who served as legislative counsel for former Rep. William Dannemeyer of California, described the fight as “a very, very, high-profile chapter in the culture wars of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.”

Mr. Franc recalled how former Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina went to the floor of the U.S. Senate, hoping to show some of the artwork that was being funded as a way of highlighting how objectionable it was — but the presiding officer ruled the material was so bad that it crossed the line into pornography and couldn’t be shown on the floor.

“Helms said, ‘Wait a minute, we are paying for this, this is a legitimate issue to come before this body, because this body approved funds that eventually went to fund this particular work and you are telling me that I can’t even show it as part of my discussion of this?’ ” Mr. Franc said. “It was that kind of weird Orwellian situation.”