Hill GOP Patient on Steele

Posted March 9, 2009 at 6:36pm

Despite a series of public missteps that have thrust Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele into the spotlight, House and Senate GOP leaders say they are willing to let the new chairman work through his problems and will not call for his ouster.

Over the past several weeks, Steele has found himself embroiled in a number of controversies, including a very public spat with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. Steele also has clashed with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and other Senate moderates after he suggested he would support primary challengers in their races next year.

Those problems, particularly in recent days, have frustrated Congressional Republicans, who privately complain that at a time when the party is making a strong public push against President Barack Obama’s budget, Steele’s fight with Limbaugh was a distraction.

“There were a lot of positive stories to tell last week … but we spent the majority of the week defending Rush Limbaugh,— a Senate GOP aide said.

But despite those dust-ups, Republicans said their relationship with Steele, while not particularly deep, has not been irreparably damaged by his early mistakes. They say they will give him some time to set up his new operation and get settled in his new role.

“It’s way too early to judge whether he’s capable of providing effective leadership at the Republican National Committee,— said a senior Senate GOP aide.

Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said his boss recognizes Steele “has a big job to do,— and believes he “will be a dynamic and effective chairman.— “He looks forward to working with him to rebuild the Republican Party by offering better solutions for the problems facing the American people.—

While some Republicans on Capitol Hill have privately asked those close to Steele to urge him to take on a lower profile, neither Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) nor Boehner have done so, Republicans said.

The wait-and-see approach is the result of a number of factors, aides said. While the rocky start to Steele’s tenure at the RNC has caused some heartburn, there is a general sense among Congressional Republicans that it is too early to begin attacking him.

“Everyone is reluctant to criticize the RNC chairman in his first month,— another Senate Republican aide said, adding that “anytime the RNC chairman is a topic of conversation on Capitol Hill, it’s not a good thing.—

A second factor at play is the fact that Steele’s advisers have started pulling him away from his public profile, at least for the time being. The move clears the way for Steele to put into place a series of reforms at the RNC and to get his full team in place, something that Republicans on and off the Hill have called for in recent days.

Steele also is in the early stages of developing relationships with lawmakers. While he has been attending the Senate GOP’s weekly luncheons, he is still a relatively new face for many Members.

That’s a bit of a shift from former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, who as a Kentuckian and longtime national party operative had existing personal relationships with lawmakers, including McConnell and Boehner.

Steele has only had a few face-to-face interactions with Boehner, but the two have spoken on the phone several times since Steele’s election in January, according to Boehner’s spokesman. GOP aides said Steele has also talked with McConnell and other Senate leaders regularly.

Steele is not without his allies in the Congress — after all, last week he contributed $1 million apiece to the House and Senate fundraising committees. Those donations were viewed by many Republicans as a peace offering after several weeks of troubling headlines and public gaffes.

Despite Steele’s rough beginning, the National Republican Congressional Committee has been coordinating on every administrative level with the RNC, sources said. The sources added that Steele has been instrumental in the upcoming special election in New York’s 20th district, visiting twice for fundraisers and other events.

Also, Steele has had meetings with NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas). “Sen. Cornyn has met with Chairman Steele several times in recent weeks. He’s looking forward to working with him this election cycle, particularly on their shared goal of broadening the party’s appeal and expanding outreach efforts,— NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said.

“Chairman Sessions understands that campaign politics is a team sport, and that is why he plans to continue to work closely with Chairman Steele,— said Ken Spain, communications director for the NRCC. “They have worked closely together in the past, and he is looking to build on what is an already strong relationship as we work toward victory in 2010.—