GOP picks Reince Priebus to lead as it regroups

The new national Republican Party chairman says his party has to "get on track'' to "defeat Barack Obama in 2012.'' In a brief victory speech, Reince Priebus asked for unity within the fractured 168-member Republican National Committee.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 12:00 AM

GOP leaders began a weekend of strategizing Friday as the Republican National Committee voted out its controversial chairman, Michael S. Steele, in favor of Reince Priebus, the Wisconsin Republican Party chairman, and House members plotted their future at a party retreat in Baltimore.

RNC members took seven rounds of balloting and most of the afternoon to settle on a new leader for the debt-ridden party organization. Financial issues were also a central concern at the House retreat as GOP leaders prepared for their first major showdown with President Obama: the coming vote to increase the debt limit, which some tea party freshmen have vowed to resist to prevent increases to the deficit.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) delivered a stern message that the debt ceiling will eventually have to be raised to keep the government from defaulting. But he also promised that Republicans will "use the leverage" they have to enact at least some of their spending-reduction goals.

"It's a leverage moment for Republicans," Cantor said in an interview Friday. "The president needs us. There are things we were elected to do. Let's accomplish those if the president needs us to clean up the old mess."

Republicans will be "putting down a marker" in the next 10 days about how deeply they intend to cut federal spending, Cantor said, which will be tied to a detailed negotiation over the debt limit and the government funding resolution that is set to expire March 4.

In the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, which prompted a national outpouring of criticism of the harsh tone of the nation's political discourse, the GOP confronts a political environment that has changed dramatically since the party's big victory in November. Obama, who appeared weakened and on the defensive in the days after the midterm elections, has emerged as a stronger and more resilient adversary than Republicans anticipated just 10 weeks ago.

The party's new chairman, Priebus, was a onetime Steele ally who more recently harshly criticized his poor performance as a leader and fundraiser. His bid picked up momentum when Steele - whose rocky tenure doomed his chances for a second two-year term - conceded after the fourth round of balloting.

"I will step aside because I think the party is ready for something different," Steele said. He remained defiant about the gains the GOP had made under his guidance, noting, "Despite the noise, despite the difficulties, we won."

In addition to Steele, Priebus beat out former RNC official Maria Cino, former Michigan Republican Party chairman Saul Anuzis and former ambassador Ann Wagner for the top job.

Priebus touted himself as the anti-Steele, a low-key operator who would not court controversy or seek to turn the spotlight on himself. He made sure the 168 voting members of the committee knew about the successes he had enjoyed as chairman of the Wisconsin GOP, which won a governor's race, a U.S. Senate seat and two House seats in November.

He now inherits the difficult task of erasing a $20 million debt the RNC carried in the wake of the 2010 election and rebuilding relationships with major GOP donors that had eroded badly during Steele's time in office.

Every candidate in the race - with the exception of Steele - insisted that although the party had scored major victories in the 2010 election, the RNC was not in the sort of shape it needed to be to help defeat Obama in 2012.

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