WASHINGTON - 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 the sequester 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 flash point 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 members 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 saving of $74,000 for a 40-hour week.
Those officers are being reassigned to other duties to help reduce overtime costs, the Secret Service says.