The new chairman of the Republican National Committee said Sunday that his party should put the brakes on Democratic initiatives, from the economic stimulus bill to President Obama's plans for his Cabinet.
Michael Steele said in a telephone interview that Republicans should oppose former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle's nomination to be secretary of Health and Human Services. Daschle is the second Cabinet nominee to acknowledge he didn't pay thousands of dollars in taxes.
"We've already let one cat out of the bag with (Treasury Secretary Timothy) Geithner," Steele said. "So what's the standard down to, to be a Cabinet secretary? You don't have to pay your taxes? Come on."
As he bought groceries near his Maryland home and fielded congratulations from shoppers, Steele also said Republicans should keep Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., from becoming Obama's Commerce secretary. Steele said he'd take lightly any assurance that the state's Democratic governor would name a Republican successor.
"We'd better be very suspicious," he said. He said he hoped to talk to Gregg on Monday to encourage him to stay in the Senate.
As for the stimulus package, Steele praised House Republicans for giving it zero support and said GOP senators should "kill" their bill if it's equally bad.
Steele, his party's first African-American chairman, said Friday after winning that the GOP had been misdefined as uncompassionate. He said Sunday that opposing the stimulus bill, which Obama and Democrats say is crucial to helping struggling families, does not signal lack of compassion.
"Tax policy is not about compassion," he said. "It's about what makes … fiscal sense for an economy in trouble."
Later, Steele said he didn't want to sound insensitive about the stimulus "and those aspects of it that are there to help people. We have no problem with that." He said Democrats "lump all the compassionate parts with the very, very bad parts and that hurts the entire package."
Pollster Geoffrey Garin, a top Democratic strategist, says Steele puts "a better, friendlier face" on the GOP, but the party's problems are deep-seated. "He has a very steep hill to climb" to change that, Garin says.
The 2008 election results revealed Republicans in decline among minorities, better-educated voters and regions outside the South. Steele gave one of his first interviews to Essence magazine, a publication for black women. And he said Sunday that he has instructed the RNC to add all major black news media outlets to its press release list.
Steele also says the party should be open to moderate voters and candidates.
Some Republicans had concerns about what The American Spectator's Quin Hillyer called Steele's thin record of organizing, fundraising and electoral results. Steele calls that "laughable" and says he's proven himself in many posts.
Steele won the RNC job on a sixth ballot against South Carolina party Chairman Katon Dawson. "It was a very stark moment," he says of the choice before the party.
His victory, he says, "had nothing to do with race."
"It's a wonderful byproduct. Having a black president of the United States and a black leader of the opposition is a wonderful testament to our country."