After visiting the White House, Hixson High School students and teachers took a tour of the U.S. Capitol.Photo by Staff photo by Chris Carroll
WASHINGTON — Twenty-four lucky Hixson High School students and teachers traveled here this week, slipping into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. two days before White House tours are suspended indefinitely.
"I felt kind of important walking around," grinned Nelly Nunez, 17. "Not many people are getting in there right now."
Months ago, the merry band of 11th-grade Wildcats submitted their Social Security numbers for Secret Service background checks. On Thursday they finally gained entry; many portraits, porticos and protesters later, they described their presidential day-in-the-life.
"I see it as living history, being able to experience the past and the current," said Kevin Nguyen, 16. "It's a really big eye-opener for me."
But Nunez, Nguyen and their friends are among the last to hit the presidential library, State Dining Room and impeccable North Lawn. For a while, at least.
According to a recorded message from the White House visitors office, tours are canceled "until further notice" starting Saturday.
"Unfortunately," a female voice said, "we will not be able to reschedule affected tours."
Administration officials blame across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.
"The president and the first lady have throughout the time that they've been here made extraordinary efforts to make this the people's house," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday. "It is extremely unfortunate that we have the kind of situation like the sequester."
Tourists must request tickets from members of their congressional delegations. U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's office said Chattanooga's congressman already has told three groups they won't be able to tour the White House next week. A total of 484 3rd Congressional District residents have asked for tours in March, spokesman Tyler Threadgill said.
"It's a shame President [Barack] Obama has chosen to try and save tax dollars by robbing East Tennesseans of an opportunity to see the White House," Threadgill said. "If visitors from the 3rd District would like to see the United States Capitol, Congressman Fleischmann and his staff will be more than happy to accommodate."
It's not entirely clear how money will be saved by eliminating tours. According to an ABC News report, tour costs mostly stem from security -- a point confirmed by Hixson students.
"If you dropped something," Nunez said after the tour, "they were all over you."
The Secret Service told ABC News it takes about 37 officers to secure White House visits. The total savings from eliminating tours is $74,000 a week, Secret Service officials said.
But multiple news reports said the Secret Service won't be furloughing or laying anyone off. Officers instead will be reassigned to other posts, including the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Students and teachers sympathized with future tour groups.
"It hurts freedom of access," said Suzanne Rushworth, a Hixson history teacher and the trip's lead supervisor. "Touring the president's home is a demonstration of democracy and freedom."