GOP leaders, in a private meeting last month, delivered a blunt and at times heated message to RNC Chairman Michael Steele: quit meddling in policy.
The plea was made during what was supposed to be a routine discussion about polling matters and other priorities in House Minority Leader John Boehner’s office. But the session devolved into a heated discussion about the roles of congressional leadership and Steele, according to multiple people familiar with the meeting.
The congressional leaders were particularly miffed that Steele had in late August unveiled a seniors’ “health care bill of rights” without consulting with them. The statement of health care principles, outlined in a Washington Post op-ed, began with a robust defense of Medicare that puzzled some in a party not known for its attachment to entitlements.
Elected Republicans urged Steele to focus on the governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia and other political matters, such as fundraising, rather than on attempting to establish party policy.
Steele was taken aback by the comments from Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Senate GOP conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Senate GOP policy Chairman John Thune of South Dakota and grew defensive during the 10-minute discussion, according to two people in the room.
The RNC, according to one source, was planning to roll out more policy initiatives.
Steele said he was getting asked during his travels around the country where the GOP stood on a range of issues and that he wanted to respond to these questions.
And at one point, Steele, a Washington native, said that his upbringing in the “streets” made him a fighter and that he was determined to continue fighting and aggressively defending the party, according to two people familiar with the account.
Alexander, who initiated the discussion and, sources say, was the most uneasy about Steele’s crafting policy, told POLITICO that he spoke to Steele last weekend about the matter and that the congressional leadership and the RNC chairman are now all on the same page.
“We had a good discussion,” Alexander said. “I think what he’s trying to do is correct. He’s trying to focus what he says on the threat that these health care bills have to seniors. And we wanted to make sure that the policy that he was talking about — that the policy was developed by the Congress. And I had a good conversation with Michael after our meeting, and I’m perfectly satisfied that that’s what he’s doing.”
Alexander said the “point” of the discussion was that the GOP leaders should be the ones driving the policy.
The discussion, sources said, did not touch on the merits of the “health care bill of rights” — just on whether it should have been coming out of the RNC.
“We are elected to set the policy,” Alexander said. “But in my view, the national committee’s job is to create the environment in which Republicans can be elected to set policy. Michael Steele said that was exactly his point of view, so I think we see eye to eye on it.”
Asked if the conversation was heated, Alexander said: “It was a good discussion. Both of us are grown-ups and are experienced in politics, and I don’t think either one of us has thought very much about it.”
RNC officials declined to make Steele available for an interview.
“Closed-door meetings are closed-door meetings” is all party communications director Trevor Francis would say. But Steele allies say that the bill of rights was crafted in consultation with the GOP’s House and Senate leaders.
And they note that contentious meetings between party leaders are nothing new.
“So what?” said one Steele ally. “He has meetings with the leadership regularly; sometimes everyone agrees, and sometimes they don’t. You always have a little bit of tension. Everyone’s turf-conscious of everyone.”
There are larger issues at hand, though, beyond a tense exchange over strategy. Since Steele took over the party earlier this year, congressional leaders and their staff have often cringed at the voluble chairman’s gaffes and rolled their eyes at his unambiguous view that he alone leads the party.
“He’s on a short leash here,” said one top House GOP leadership aide.
At the same time, Steele and his backers can be annoyed at what they see as the know-it-all arrogance and even jealousy of some in their party’s congressional wing.
“I would defy anyone that it wasn’t politically smart” to issue the bill of rights, said a Steele ally, arguing that it painted Democrats as hypocrites for wanting to cut Medicare after they’ve spent years accusing Republicans of wanting to do the same.
And, this Steele associate said, there is some lingering resistance among the party’s congressional leaders and their top aides to fully embrace Steele as chairman.
“There’s a lot less of that than [there] used to be, but there’s still a little of that,” the source said.
The clash also reflects a party that is still trying to determine how exactly to take on the opposition and particularly whether the Republicans need to produce their own initiatives to contrast with Democrats’ or just oppose policies that polls show are losing favor with the public.
With a Democrat in the White House, small GOP minorities in both houses of Congress and no clear standard-bearer for 2012, Republicans lack a clear national leader. And on the Hill, there are many free agents who push their own agendas, leaving the impression that the GOP lacks a clear vision — an issue that the Democratic leaders have sought to exploit.
“Coordination is always tough. We’ve got a bunch of independent actors — everybody is elected from their states or their congressional districts — so it’s always a challenge and always something we can do better,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas, who was not at the meeting but was told about it later.
Cornyn, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, which is debating a major health care bill, said that revamping one-sixth of the nation’s economy is “incredibly complex. ... And so I can understand why there might be some concern before the political committees start messaging on it that they coordinate with the policymakers, which are members of Congress.
“But I think this is sort of the natural concern that we have every day, which is trying to coordinate on message,” Cornyn said. “And that’s always a work in progress.”
Cornyn said that Steele has been a “team player” and that he’s been “very good” about reaching out to congressional Republicans.
“I just think it’s not easy, and we’re working on it.”
Thune, who is No. 4 in the Senate Republican leadership, said the message from the meeting was that “we need to coordinate as much as possible.
“On communication and the policy, the Senate leadership, the RNC — we all need to be working together in an effective way,” Thune said. “And I think that was the overarching message that came out of that discussion.”
Asked if it was a contentious conversation, Thune would only say: “I don’t want to get into the details of that.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this story.