White House tours off, Easter egg roll on for now

AP News
Posted: Mar 07, 2013 7:21 PM
White House tours off, Easter egg roll on for now

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House says it is going forward with plans for its 135-year tradition of the Easter egg roll, while dashing the hopes of some Iowa children who hoped to visit the president's home.

Sixth graders at St. Paul's Lutheran School in Waverly, Iowa, had their upcoming visit canceled as the White House suspended all tours under across-the-board government spending cuts in a partisan budget battle. The disappointed class put a video on Facebook asking for the tour to be reinstated. "The White House is our house, please let us visit," the children say in unison.

The tours have become a political flashpoint along with the rest of the budget battle, with Republicans arguing the suspension is a stunt and questioning how much it will really save.

Presidential press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday that the Secret Service needs to make unfortunate trade-offs like all federal agencies, and its options included canceling tours, furloughing staff or cutting overtime. "In order to allow the Secret Service to best fulfill its core mission, the White House made the decision that we would unfortunately have to temporarily suspend these tours," Carney said after being asked to respond to the students at St. Paul's.

"I'm not suggesting it's a happy choice, but it is one that we had to make," Carney said.

He had better news for the families who won tickets to the Easter egg roll planned for April 1 on the South Lawn. The White House is expecting more than 35,000 people for the annual celebration, which began in 1878 under President Rutherford B. Hayes. An email sent in recent days notifying those who won the free ticket lottery warned that this year's event could be called off because of the budget battle.

"By reserving these tickets, you are acknowledging that this event is subject to cancellation due to funding uncertainty surrounding the Executive Office of the President and other federal agencies," the email said. But Carney said the White House currently is moving ahead with Easter egg roll plans, even though White House officials would not rule out the possibility of a potential cancellation.

The Secret Service would not comment on how many agents or how much money it budgets to handle security at the Easter egg roll, the largest annual event at the White House. But the agency did break down its math on canceling the tours, during which its officers stand in each of the rooms that are open to ticketholders and help answer questions. It says roughly 37 officers are assigned to the task at a cost of $50 an hour including benefits, for a savings of $74,000 for a 40-hour week. Those officers are being reassigned to other duties help reduce overtime costs, the Secret Service says.

Fourteen Republican senators sent the president a letter Thursday asking for the impact on White House staffing and what other cost-saving measures are being implemented. "To arbitrarily shut off access to a taxpayer funded historical building such as the White House is disappointing," the senators wrote.

As for the students at St. Paul's, their viral video is providing a valuable lesson in civics and public engagement. Parent and school board member Karen Thalacker, a chaperone for the trip to Washington next week, said they have been overwhelmed with their messages of support and the impact they've had on the national debate.

"We are not choosing sides. Our children are not Democrats, are not Republicans. Our children are Americans who want to visit the White House," Thalacker said. The children also had their congressman, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, deliver a letter to the White House Thursday that they wrote in pencil on lined notebook paper, asking Obama to do what he can to open the White House. "P.S. Our class would like to play basketball with you," they wrote with a smiley face.

Thalacker said the students don't want special treatment and only want to come if the tours are reinstated for all. They still have plans to visit the Smithsonian museums and Arlington Cemetery, and Thalacker said House Speaker John Boehner has extended an invitation for a visit to the Capitol.

"We'd love to have the American people come and visit their Capitol," Boehner told reporters at a news conference Thursday. "I think it's disappointing that the Obama administration didn't follow our lead and find savings in other parts of their budget. I think it's silly that they've insisted on locking down the White House, which the American people actually own."