The subject was the lack of progress Wednesdayin ending the partial shutdown of the federal government. But House Speaker Newt Gingrich still was fuming about his treatment aboard Air Force One when he traveled to Israel two weeks earlier for the funeral of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
In a revealing breakfast session that reflected the increasingly bitter, personal nature of the budget fight, Gingrich, R-Ga., told reporters that he and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole had endured “shabby treatment” at the hands of President Clinton during the 25-hour VIP round trip to Israel.
Clinton, he said, chose not to discuss the pending budget crisis with them during the flight. And GOP leaders were “insulted” when they were required to use a rear exit off the presidential plane when it returned to Andrews Air Force Base with a bipartisan American delegation.
Insisting his concerns were “not petty,” Gingrich claimed Clinton’s conduct signaled a “lack of seriousness” on the part of the administration in resolving the budget battle.
“Was it just a sign of utter incompetence or lack of consideration, or was it a deliberate strategy of insult?” Gingrich asked. “I don’t know which it was.”
So the political talk turned to slights, real or imagined, on the second day of the federal government shutdown. President Clinton canceled a scheduled trip to Japan this weekend, citing the crisis. And Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, seeking to avoid a government default, moved $61 billion in federal pension-plan trust fund accounts to make debt payments.
Late Wednesday, Gingrich and Dole, R-Kan., crafted a new temporary spending bill that would fund the government through Dec. 5 and put it back to work - if Clinton agreed to a seven-year balanced-budget plan approved by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
In this debate, Clinton has rejected CBO figures, preferring the economic assumptions of his administration’s Office of Management and Budget. The president was expected to veto the so-called “continuing resolution.”
Democrats mocked Gingrich’s complaints as small-minded and inappropriate given the nature of the Israel trip, while his House allies insisted the slights revealed the contempt in which Clinton holds his political rivals.
White House press secretary Michael McCurry dismissed Gingrich’s remarks, at first suggesting in mock seriousness that the press corps was playing a prank on him by asking about the flight.
“The speaker was treated with the utmost courtesy,” McCurry said. “In fact, so much courtesy that his wife was invited (on Air Force One) when other wives in the delegation were not invited.”
“… I just fail to believe the speaker would somehow or other connect this to the current budget crisis.”
But senior House members said they were aware of Gingrich’s unhappiness, and most agreed with his gloomy analysis of Clinton’s behavior.
Asked if Clinton had shown too little respect for the GOP Congress, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House GOP Conference, said, “He doesn’t think we’re serious.
“The White House has been in fantasy land on this (budget) issue for some time. We’ve reached out and reached out, only to be snubbed and snubbed and snubbed.”
Boehner’s mood on Day Two of the shutdown was hardly conciliatory.
When asked if Republicans were surprised by the president’s tough-guy posture on the budget, he said: “I felt all along that even the wobbly knees of Bill Clinton would have to get engaged in this debate.”
While the airborne imbroglio might befuddle most of the 800,000 government workers enduring unpaid furloughs, the depth of feeling among Republicans and Democrats reflects the fundamental mutual dislike at the core of the budget debate.
Last Monday, at a late-night Oval Office meeting between Clinton and senior Republicans, the president exchanged sharp words with House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas.
Armey objected to Clinton pointing at him and told the president that Texas politicos found that gesture insulting.
Clinton fired back that in Arkansas, politicians didn’t attack the wives of other politicians, alluding to harsh criticism Armey leveled at Hillary Rodham Clinton during last year’s health care debate.
Armey had compared the administration’s selling of the health-care plan to “the new Coke,” and suggested it was written by “Marxist” friends of the first lady.
Since the budget debate moved to center stage, both sides have orchestrated a series of stunts and photo opportunities designed to inflict political damage.
Senior Democratic lawmakers recently dragged a trio of bloodhounds onto the Capitol grounds, claiming they were searching out closed-door GOP budget chicanery.
Last weekend, after delivering a radio address attacking the GOP budget plan, Clinton went to play golf. Shortly thereafter, Gingrich and Dole turned up in the Senate press gallery toting golf clubs.
On the matter of Clinton’s airborne etiquette, however, House Republicans adopted a serious tone.
“Some of the members think it’s Hillary Clinton’s fault,” said one Midwestern Republican who requested anonymity. “They think Clinton would have talked to Newt and Dole if she hadn’t told him not to. I mean, she hates Newt.”