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White House to reopen for tours

WASHINGTON – The White House will resume public tours on “a limited basis” starting Nov. 5 and will hold its semi-annual gardens and grounds tour next weekend, administration officials said Friday.

Secret Service spokesman Robert Novy said the tours would continue through Jan. 15 and occur three days a week on average, although the exact number of days will vary.

The tours have been halted since March in the wake of across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. The advent of a new spending bill approved by Congress this week allowed the agency to resume the tours “on a limited schedule while still meeting operational requirements,” Novy said.

One Secret Service official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly, said the agency “will closely monitor the cost so we can make sure we can fund our mission-critical operations. We’re doing this on a limited basis, and if it gets to the point where we don’t have the money to do it, we’ll stop.”

Early in the year, White House officials said the Secret Service had made the decision to cancel the tours because sequestration required the agency to abruptly reduce its budget by $84 million. Officials estimated that ending the tours for roughly 11,000 people a week would save $74,000 in weekly overtime costs, producing a $2 million savings by the end of the last fiscal year.

The decision to end tours of the East Wing and Executive Residence upset many visitors to Washington and infuriated Republican members of Congress, who suggested President Barack Obama could cut costs elsewhere by canceling his golf outings or other events.

During an interview with ABC News in March, Obama raised the prospect of allowing just school groups to visit, but that never materialized.

“I’m always amused when people on the one hand say the sequester doesn’t mean anything and the administration’s exaggerating its effects, and then whatever the specific effects are, they yell and scream and say, ’Why are you doing that?’” Obama said during the interview. “Well, there are consequences to Congress not having come up with a more sensible way to reduce the deficit.”

The White House did hold its annual Easter Egg Roll in April because it was underwritten by corporate donors and the sale of souvenir eggs.

On Friday, Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, welcomed the reopening of the tours but mocked the White House for suspending them as long as it did. The tours are booked through lawmakers’ offices.

“We’re happy Americans can once again visit their White House, but even more pleased that the White House has finally caught up to Congress and figured out how to do more with less,” Buck said. “It’s just a shame it took this long.”

In restarting the tours, the White House also revived the fall garden tour, saying the public would be able to see the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, Rose Garden and South Lawn of the White House as well as the White House Kitchen Garden on Oct. 26 and 27.

Those tickets will be available starting at 7:30 a.m. Saturday at the Ellipse Visitor Pavilion at 15th and E Streets NW in Washington. One ticket per person - including children - will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

In March, deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged that canceling the tours, a rite of passage for many Americans, was hard for some to accept.

“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,” Earnest said.

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