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Obama says Secret Service cutbacks prompted tour cancellations

President Barack Obama waves to a tour group as he departs for campaign events in Virginia from the White House in Washington September 21,
President Barack Obama waves to a tour group as he departs for campaign events in Virginia from the White House in Washington September 21,

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday blamed the decision to halt the popular White House tours on mandatory cutbacks to the Secret Service budget and said he was looking for ways to allow groups such as students to visit.

"I have to say this was not a decision that went up to the White House. What the Secret Service explained to us was that they're going to have to furlough some folks," Obama told ABC News in explaining why the tours were canceled after $85 billion in automatic spending cuts known as "sequestration" kicked in.

Trips to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, many of them organized by members of Congress, are especially popular in the spring. That's when school groups and other tourists descend upon the capital to visit monuments and Washington buildings and attend the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.

Some students have pleaded to be allowed to come, making their case in videos posted online and on social networking websites.

Republican lawmakers accuse the White House of canceling the tours as a way to drum up voter anger and increase pressure on them to agree to Obama's demand for higher taxes on the wealthy as part of a deficit-reduction deal.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the White House decided to suspend the tours after the Secret Service said it could not provide necessary protection during the tours. Uniformed Secret Service guards screen everyone who enters the White House.

"The fact of the matter is that the White House runs the tours," Carney said. "The tours are of the White House. The Secret Service staffs the tours."

The move saves the government about $74,000 a week.

Obama said he was looking at ways to allow some people in the White House.

"What I'm asking ... is, are there ways, for example, for us to accommodate school groups, you know, who may have traveled here with some bake sales. Can we make sure that kids ... can still come to tour?" the president said.

Obama said the cancellations were an unfortunate result of the automatic budget cuts, which took effect at the start of this month after he and Congress and failed to agree on ways to stem rising deficits.

"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 doin' that?'" Obama told ABC.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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