Conservatives on the 168-member Republican National Committee are pressing a reluctant RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele to call a party meeting that would focus criticism on President Obama's stimulus package and its backers -- including three Republican senators who voted for it.
In a conference call Wednesday with Ken McKay, Mr. Steele's newly named chief of staff, the conservative critics set a deadline of 5 p.m. Friday for Mr. Steele to agree to a special meeting of the full committee to be held next month.
The demand creates an awkward situation for Mr. Steele, who already is under fire from fellow Republicans for a string of shaky media interviews. Republican national chairmen have rarely, if ever, publicly criticized GOP lawmakers over policy differences.
Mr. Steele offered instead to sign onto a joint statement that would criticize the stimulus package and the Democrats who passed it, but drop the criticism of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and Maine Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins.
The conservatives, led by constitutional law attorney and Indiana RNC member James Bopp Jr., rejected Mr. Steele's offer. If he doesn't call the special meeting, they said, they have the requisite signatures of members from 16 states to force a full committee meeting May 20 at National Harbor outside Washington, where a smaller gathering of state party chairmen is already scheduled.
"If he calls the meeting, this way we'll see if he wants to work with us," Oklahoma RNC member Carolyn McLarty, a resolution sponsor, said before Mr. Steele nixed the request for a special meeting.
She and other conservatives are concerned that Mr. Steele's sometimes conflicting public statements have diverted attention from what they see as the disastrous leadership of Mr. Obama and the Democrats who run Congress.
Since his Jan. 30 election as national chairman, Mr. Steele has gotten into a protracted verbal tussle with talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and made remarks on abortion that prompted a Catholic bishop in Indiana to boycott an annual Right to Life banquet, where Mr. Steele is the headline speaker.
Mr. Steele apologized for what he called these "gaffes" but later said his apparent mistakes were actually purposeful parts of a grand "strategy."
Some RNC members question his silence on matters on which they think he should be vocal.
"He was elected - clearly a majority of members thought he would be our most articulate and conservative spokesman," said Texas RNC member Cathy Adams. "So we are wondering why not one utterance from him on the three Republican senators" whose votes were crucial to the passage of the stimulus bill.
"And nothing about the White House thinking it has the right to dismiss the General Motors CEO. I can promise you people in Texas are watching all this and throwing things at their televisions and wanting to burn their newspapers in anger," Mrs. Adams said.
Mr. Steele, the first black national chairman of his party, has complained about criticism from fellow Republicans, most recently at an Anne Arundel County GOP fundraiser Tuesday night.
Speaking at the Annapolis Sheraton, he alluded to remarks he had made earlier on CNN, when he said his row with Mr. Limbaugh and his comments on abortion were not mistakes but part of a strategic plan to get his GOP enemies to reveal themselves.
"I'm very introspective about things," Mr. Steele said at the Sheraton. "I'm a cause-and-effect kind of guy. So if I do something there is a reason for it. Even though it may look like a mistake or a gaffe, there's a rationale - a logic - behind it."
Asked why he would purposely say things that would be construed as gaffes, he said, "I want to see what the landscape looks like. I want to see who yells the loudest. I want to know who says they're with me but really isn't."
Asked why he feels a need to flush out the opposition, he said, "It helps me understand my position on the chess board. It helps me understand where the enemy camp is. And where those who are inside the tent are. It's all strategic."
But Mrs. McLarty said, "I don't really buy that. I think he just said things in his gut that didn't come out right for conservatives."
Some RNC members say they no longer know when Mr. Steele means what he says and when his words are meant to be strategically misleading.
"So what is true? Are you really apologetic? We need to know," Mrs. Adams said.