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Obamas surprise WH visitors as tours resume

By By CNN's Bryan Koenig
Published On: Nov 05 2013 01:44:47 PM CST
Obamas greet WH visitors

WhiteHouse.gov

(CNN) -

Visitors on the newly reopened White House tours were not just greeted by security guards and staffers Tuesday morning but by the building's residents, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

The president and the first lady greeted a long line of visitors one by one. Tours of the White House returned Tuesday for the first time in eight months after administration officials canceled them in March, citing funding constraints from the forced federal budget cuts, known in Washington speak as "the sequester."

The stream of visitors included school children and government employees and their families. Obama stayed to greet only one group of visitors but when he left, his wife still had help in the form of the first family pets Bo and Sunny.

According to the White House, 3 million people have visited since Obama took office in 2009, attending unofficial holiday events and official ceremonies.

The return of the tours, on a limited schedule, was announced last month.

The president took considerable heat when the tours were canceled, with Republicans arguing it was a purely political move aimed at drumming up ire at the GOP for the cancellation.

"This is nonsense," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and now co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," said at the time." "This is punishing the American people."

"The president will use up more Secret Service time guarding him while he golfs than it would take to keep the White House tours open all year," he argued.

The U.S. Secret Service said in March the plan to nix the tours would save the agency $74,000 per week -- or $2 million in the next seven months. That's how much it costs to pay 37 uniformed officers $50 an hour for 40 hours a week to secure the tour's route through the East Wing.

"Last year's sequestration came midway through the fiscal year," U.S. Secret Service Spokesman Brian Leary said last month. "And we were unable to adjust or re-allocate remaining funding to continue tours while still ensuring enough funding remained to meet all operational needs and avoid furloughing our employees."

Leary added that the Secret Service is confident that -- through the short-term spending bill passed by Congress in October -- tours can operate at a reduced level, "while still meeting operational requirements."

Visitors who want a White House tour are advised to obtain tickets through their members of Congress.

--CNN's Ashley Killough contributed to this report.

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