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Budget cuts end White House tours, but not finger-pointing

A worker cleans a sidewalk outside the White House in Washington March 2, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
A worker cleans a sidewalk outside the White House in Washington March 2, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The sixth-grade class at St. Paul's Lutheran School in Waverly, Iowa, sent a message this week that was heard in the White House briefing room.

"The White House is our house," the class said in a video posted on Facebook. "Please let us visit."

But their trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which had been set for March 16, is off. White House tours will be suspended starting on Saturday due to mandated across-the-board spending cuts known as "sequestration." The move will save the federal government an estimated $74,000 a week.

Many were left holding worthless tour tickets, secured months in advance through members of Congress. There is no rain check for a White House tour.

The children's video caught the attention of White House reporters, and of the top Republican in Congress.

"What is your answer, or the president's answer, to the sixth-graders at St. Paul's Lutheran School?" one reporter asked White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

"It is extremely unfortunate that we have a situation like the sequester that compels the kinds of tradeoffs and decisions that this represents," said Carney.

He said the Secret Service, which is involved in the tours, offered various options to deal with sequester-related cuts ranging from canceling tours to furloughs and cuts in overtime.

"And in order to allow the Secret Service to best fulfill its core missions, the White House made the decision that we would, unfortunately, have to temporarily suspend these tours," Carney said.

When another White House spokesman was asked whether private donations might put the tours back on track, he said that step might be unfeasible given the technical requirements of the sequester.

The last time the White House closed its doors to school groups was after the September 11, 2001, attacks. The tours resumed the following February, with a suspension in the spring of 2003 during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The general public was not allowed back into the White House until September 2003.

'A LITTLE BIT HEARTBREAKING'

The decision found little favor with supporters of St. Paul's sixth-graders, who asked Facebook viewers to "like" their video to agitate for putting the tour back on their Washington itinerary.

By late Friday, nearly 1,000 had "liked" the post, nearly 500 had shared it and more than 100 had commented.

House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner boasted that tours of the Capitol would continue.

"Even though our budget's been cut like everyone else's, thanks to proper planning, we're able to avoid furloughs amongst Capitol workers, and tours are going to remain available for all Americans," Boehner told reporters on Thursday.

He called the White House decision "disappointing" and "silly," the result of a failure to find savings in other parts of the budget.

Benno Nelson, a Los Angeles-based film director and self-described "civic nerd" who is planning a family trip to Washington in May, had a one-word response when told of the tour cancellations: "Nooooo!"

"Definitely to get a tour of the White House is something I was really looking forward to, and I planned it in advance and called my congressman. ... To hear that they're not doing that is a little bit heartbreaking," he said.

The recorded White House message for those looking for tour information is as contrite as a recorded message can get:

"Due to staffing reductions resulting from sequestration, we regret to inform you that White House tours will be canceled effective Saturday, March 9, 2013, until further notice. Unfortunately we will not be able to reschedule affected tours. We very much regret having to take this action, particularly during the popular spring touring season."

(Reporting By Deborah Zabarenko, additional reporting by Richard Cowan and David Lawder; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Xavier Briand)

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