WASHINGTON - President Clinton said today he was "sorry and surprised" if House Speaker Newt Gingrich took offense at the way he had been treated on Air Force One.
Gingrich complained yesterday that in 24 hours of flying to and from the Jerusalem funeral of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin last week Clinton failed to discuss their budget differences - and made Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., sit in the back of the plane and leave by the rear exit.
The speaker said his personal pique helped prompt the partial shutdown of the federal government.
The alleged "snub," the Georgia Republican told reporters, was "part of why you ended up with us sending down a tougher continuing resolution" - the stopgap spending bill that Clinton vetoed Monday, leading to the shutdown.
"It's petty, but I think it's human," Gingrich said of his reaction.
"If I genuinely hurt their feelings, I'm really sorry and surprised," the president said today. As for Gingrich focusing his ire toward the tough spending resolution, Clinton said, "I just don't understand it."
Clinton walked by a couple of times but barely spoke to them during the trip, Gingrich said:
"Both of us (he and Dole) got on that airplane expecting to spend several hours talking about the budget and how do we avoid the shutdown.
"Every president we had ever flown with had us up front. Every president we had ever flown with had talked to us at length."
White House chief of staff Leon Panetta said today: "I had conversations with both the speaker and the leader, and not once did either of them say, `Let's go in the back, and sit down and try and cut a deal here.' Frankly, it would have been inappropriate. Everybody knew this was about a funeral.
"And even if that were the case . . . why would you want to shut down the government?" Panetta asked.
Clinton said today he made a point of visiting with Gingrich and Dole before Air Force One landed, to say goodbye and thank them for accompanying him. The White House released a picture of them together.
And NBC News videotape shows Gingrich and Dole disembarking at Tel Aviv just behind Clinton - via the front stairway. Gingrich explained this by saying Clinton staged an exhibition of U.S. bipartisan unity for Israeli TV, then reverted to the cold-shoulder treatment flying home.
If they used the rear door on the predawn return to Washington, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said, they simply took "the fastest way off the plane."
Dole made light of leaving by the rear door, saying, "Maybe that's just the normal rotation."
Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., in the House today waved a statuette she said was an Oscar for Gingrich's performance as a child actor who was "shutting down the whole country because of his little peeve." She asked: "Could we get a performance that's more statesmanlike?"
Even some GOP comrades are advising Gingrich to calm down.
"He's been a little out of tune," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who suggested Gingrich get more sleep. "When he becomes tired and angry, the messenger obscures the message. That's not to his advantage or ours."
"Get off the airplane thing," Rep. Bill Zeliff, R-N.H., prescribed today. "We've got to stop being petty." Compiled from The Associated Press, Knight-Ridder Newspapers and Newsday.