The White House announced Tuesday that it is canceling tours of the president's home for the foreseeable future as the sequester spending cuts begin to bite and the administration makes good on its warnings of painful decisions.
Announcement of the decision — made in an email from the White House Visitors Office — came hours after The Washington Times reported on another administration email that seemed to show at least one agency has been instructed to make sure the cuts are as painful as President Obama promised they would be.
In the internal email, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service official Charles Brown said he asked if he could try to spread out the sequester cuts in his region to minimize the impact, and he said he was told not to do anything that would lessen the dire impacts Congress had been warned of.
"We have gone on record with a notification to Congress and whoever else that 'APHIS would eliminate assistance to producers in 24 states in managing wildlife damage to the aquaculture industry, unless they provide funding to cover the costs.' So it is our opinion that however you manage that reduction, you need to make sure you are not contradicting what we said the impact would be," Mr. Brown, in the internal email, said his superiors told him.
Neither Mr. Brown nor the main APHIS office in Washington returned calls seeking comment, but Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack, who oversees the agency, told Congress he is trying to give flexibility where he can.
"If we have flexibility, we're going to try to use it to make sure we use sequester in the most equitable and least disruptive way," the secretary told Rep. Kristi L. Noem, a South Dakota Republican who grilled Mr. Vilsack about the email. "There are some circumstances, and we've talked a lot about the meat inspection, where we do not have that flexibility because there are so few accounts."
Ms. Noem told Mr. Vilsack that the email made it sound like the administration was sacrificing flexibility in order to justify its earlier dire predictions.
"I'm hopeful that isn't an agenda that's been put forward," the congresswoman told Mr. Vilsack.
Late Tuesday evening, the Agriculture Department issued a statement disputing Mr. Brown's read of the situation. The department said Mr. Brown had suggested dividing his region's cuts among a number of states but he was told that idea was already part of their sequester plans.
"The APHIS budget officer explained that USDA is already proposing these steps in order to avoid furloughs. USDA is committed to doing all we can to minimize the impact of sequester [for] our employees and the farmers, ranchers, and rural communities we serve," the department said in its statement.
The $85 billion in automatic spending cuts began Friday, leaving the White House with tough decisions to make — though it argues its hands are tied by the way the cuts were written into law.
That's left the administration trying to balance dire predictions with good management.
Last week, immigration officials confirmed they were releasing immigrants awaiting deportation from their detention centers in order to save money, and this week top officials said they were already seeing long lines at airports because of cuts in screenings.
But those decisions are being scrutinized as agencies continue to advertise for job openings and spend on other priorities.
The White House had to fend off questions Tuesday about the Homeland Security Department's decision to sign a $50 million contract for new uniforms for airport screeners, just days before the sequesters.
All sides in Washington agree there should be a way to lessen some of the impacts of the cuts.
The House will take at least a step toward that Wednesday when it votes on a new spending bill for the rest of fiscal year 2013 that would mitigate at least some of the sequester impacts in the Defense Department.
Senate Democrats are looking to write an even broader bill to rearrange money in several accounts.
Mr. Obama is pushing for the broadest possible deal later this year that would raise taxes and cut entitlement spending in order to restore some of the money trimmed in sequestration.
The White House said he made calls to some key members of Congress to sound them out on the prospects for that kind of deal.
"The president is engaging with lawmakers of both parties and will continue to do so," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
For now, though, the cuts remain in place — and that means the end of White House tours.
"Due to staffing reductions resulting from sequestration, we regret to inform you that White House Tours will be canceled effective Saturday, March 9, 2013 until further notice. Unfortunately, we will not be able to reschedule affected tours," the White House said in an email to members of Congress.
The decision drew a derisive response from Capitol Hill, where Republicans said the move undercut Mr. Obama's promises of openness.
Rep. Bill Johnson, Ohio Republican, said President Lincoln managed to keep the White House open during the darkest days of the Civil War, and wondered why Mr. Obama couldn't do the same.
"If the president is unable to figure out how to keep the White House open to the American people after an 8.2 percent budget cut, then the American people are entitled to some answers from their chief executive as to why."
The Capitol is facing its own cuts.
At the Capitol, staffers entering the building's West Front were told Tuesday that the doorway there would be closed as of next week due to sequestration. That entrance is currently limited to credentialed visitors, so it won't affect the public.
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