A draft government report released by three Republican senators on the cost of President Clinton's travel has provoked a war of words between the White House and the lawmakers.

In commenting on the report, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) singled out for criticism the nearly $43 million cost of Clinton's spring 1998 trip to six countries in Africa and said it was a high price for an apology, a reference to a speech Clinton made there expressing remorse for the U.S. role in slavery.

The report, by the General Accounting Office, Congress's watchdog group, was requested by Craig and Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) in March. It details more than $72 million in federal spending on presidential travel to Africa, Chile and China last year but takes no position on whether that amount was excessive.

On Tuesday, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart defended the costs as necessary and added, "As Senator Thomas and Senator Craig, two of the most prolific travelers in the Senate, know, this is a new and globalized world."

But that was a measured response, compared with his remarks yesterday. "To sort of glibly label an important and historic trip like that as some sort of apology tour or something like that is just--there's just no other word for it but ignorant," Lockhart said.

"None of the senators were there to debate the veracity of the trips at all," shot back Will Hart, Craig's press secretary. "But these trips cost a heck of a lot of money. It was excessive."

Dan Kunsman, Thomas's press secretary, characterized as "farcical" Lockhart's remark about the two senators' prolific travel. "Senator Thomas has traveled out of the country twice in the last two years, and I assure you it didn't cost $43 million."

Hart said Craig also has traveled out of the country twice in the past two years.

The GAO report shows that a total of 2,200 people were sent on Clinton's trips, including advance teams.

"The findings of this draft study are extremely troubling to me. . . . I don't know how we can justify this number of travelers," Sessions said.

Craig noted that most of the costs--more than $65.5 million--came from the Defense Department's budget and scolded, "A large share of the money used to pay for these trips comes out of our national defense readiness, which the president has already cut to the bone."

Lockhart rejected the Republicans' interpretation of the findings, saying, "The vast majority of these costs are incurred for security and secure communications over at Pentagon." Lockhart also said the Pentagon's costs "are very similar to those incurred by President Bush and President Reagan and previous presidents."

According to the GAO draft report, after the Defense Department, the next highest costs were borne by the State Department, which spent an estimated $8,588,747 on lodging, internal travel and increased staffing costs.

CAPTION: Sens. Jeff Sessions, left, Craig Thomas, center, and Larry E. Craig release report on President Clinton's foreign travel.