WASHINGTON -- In remarks that reveal the personal tenor of the budget battle, House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested yesterday that he and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole toughened the spending bill that has led to the partial government shutdown because they felt President Clinton snubbed them on a recent plane ride.
At a breakfast session with reporters, Mr. Gingrich said he was insulted and appalled that, on the long trip aboard Air Force One this month to and from the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the president failed to invite the Republican leaders to the front of the plane to discuss the budget, and then made them exit at the rear of the plane.
"I think that's part of why you ended up with us sending down a tougher continuing resolution," Mr. Gingrich said.
"This is petty, and I'm going to say up front it's petty, and Tony will probably say that I shouldn't say it, but I think it's human," the speaker added, referring to Tony Blankley, his spokesman.
Mr. Gingrich's remarks suggest that the shabby treatment he perceived helped shape the "continuing resolution," the temporary spending bill that Mr. Clinton vetoed Monday. The bill is at the heart of the budget impasse that has closed parts of the government and furloughed 800,000 federal workers this week.
Mr. Gingrich said he thought "a couple of hours of dialogue" among the three leaders on the plane might have averted the stalemate that has led to the partial government shutdown.
As he has done repeatedly since returning from the Nov. 6 Rabin funeral, Mr. Gingrich railed against Mr. Clinton's treatment of him and Mr. Dole during their 25 hours in flight -- specifically the president's decision not to discuss the federal budget with them.
Upon arriving back in Washington, he and Mr. Dole had to exit the plane by the rear door instead of by the front door with Mr. Clinton and former Presidents George Bush and Jimmy Carter. "When you land at Andrews [Air Base] and you've been on the plane for 25 hours and nobody has talked to you and they ask you to get off by the back ramp so the media won't picture the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House returning from Israel, you just wonder, where's their sense of manners, where's their sense of courtesy?" the speaker said.
"Had they just been asleep all night and it hadn't occurred to them that maybe Bob Dole deserved the dignity of walking down the front ramp? Forget me -- I'm only speaker of the House. But you just have to say to yourself, was it a deliberate calculated aloofness or just total incompetence?"
Mike McCurry, Mr. Clinton's spokesman, called Mr. Gingrich's remarks "incomprehensible" and said he could not believe the speaker would connect the trip to the Rabin funeral with the current budget crisis.
When pressed by reporters, Mr. Gingrich tried to dismiss the notion that his tougher negotiating stance on the spending measure was a result of a bruised ego.
Rather, he said, the Republican position was influenced by his sense -- stemming from the neglect he and Mr. Dole perceived on the plane ride -- that the White House was itching for a fight and was simply not interested in negotiating.
"It was clear to us getting off that airplane they had made a decision because of their political calculations that they wanted a fight," the House speaker said.
During the plane trip, he said, he and Mr. Dole tried to grasp the message of the administration's apparent snub.
"It's like Kremlinology," Mr. Gingrich said. "You have Clintonology. What are they doing? What are the signals? One of the signals was that in 25 hours it was not worthwhile to sit down and talk. One of the signals was, once we arrived back in America, we no longer mattered."
Asked at a news conference whether he, too, was offended by his treatment aboard Air Force One, Mr. Dole said, "I wondered why I went out the rear exit. We went in the front exit. Maybe that's just the normal rotation."
Mr. McCurry said that, during the flight, Mr. Clinton walked back to the Republican leaders to thank them for joining the delegation to Israel. Budget negotiating, Mr. McCurry said, was not the purpose of the trip.
"The president of the United States lost a friend," Mr. McCurry said. "And I don't think he much felt like talking about budget politics with speaker Gingrich, with all due respect."
Mr. McCurry said the speaker was treated with "so much courtesy" on the trip that he was permitted to bring his wife, Marianne, on Air Force One. That privilege was not extended to anyone else in the delegation, including Mr. Bush and Mr. Carter.
Other Democrats, in the heat of the budget stalemate yesterday, seized on the speaker's remarks. South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader who was also on the trip, said Mr. Gingrich "must have been sleepwalking that night" because the president had spoken with the congressional leaders several times.
Noting Mrs. Gingrich's presence on the plane, Mr. Daschle said: "For a person who was given extra privileges, extra opportunities to experience this extraordinary piece of history, I'm amazed that he would be the biggest whiner."