Across the country, parents and students preparing for spring-break trips to Washington were aghast.
“Kids very bummed out,” Parag Manihar of Irving, Tex., wrote on Twitter in reference to his two young sons, who will be visiting the nation’s capital for the first time next week.
“My 6-year-old wants to see the White House and the Statue of Liberty,” Manihar said in an interview. “Now I cannot honestly explain to them why it was canceled. At their age, they do not understand the sequester.”
Administration officials have sounded alarms about the potential impact of the cuts on ordinary Americans, from long security lines at airports to teacher layoffs to Pentagon furloughs.
But it was the cancellation of the tours — leaving tens of thousands of ticket-holders out of luck — that set off the latest round of finger-pointing and recriminations between Congress and the White House. Republicans have pounced, questioning why the Obama administration is ending the free, self-guided visits to a building that ultimately belongs to taxpayers.
Administration officials say the decision was made by the Secret Service, which estimated that ending the tours for roughly 11,000 people a week would save $74,000 in weekly overtime costs. That adds up to about $2 million in savings through the end of the fiscal year in September, it said.
Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said another 37 officers are needed to secure the White House grounds during public tours. The agency is looking for ways to trim a mandatory $84 million from its budget without resorting to layoffs, he said.
“The White House has a unique place as both the seat of government, the residence of the leader of the country, but also a museum,” deputy White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday. “And it is a shame that, because of the sequester, those tours will no longer take place.”
But 1.6 miles to the east, skeptical Capitol Hill Republicans were having none of it. They accused the president of staging a political stunt aimed at pressuring the GOP into supporting his plan to offset the cuts by closing tax loopholes.
White House tickets are distributed through congressional offices, meaning it has been up to lawmakers to inform disappointed ticket-holders that their tours were canceled. But in doing so, many Republicans — and some Democrats — are reminding constituents that the legislative branch remains open.
“While I’m disappointed the White House has chosen to comply with sequestration by cutting public tours, I’m pleased to assure you that public tours of the United States Capitol will continue,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote in a letter to his home district, saying his chamber had found cuts in other areas to keep the building open.