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House Republican leaders spent yesterday mending fences within their Conference, as well as with the black community.

After weeks of criticism, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) sat down with House GOP moderates to listen to their concerns on a variety of topics, including the economic stimulus package and worries that the country’s trade policy was causing significant job losses to China.

DeLay initiated the meeting two days ago after Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), the chairman of the moderate GOP Mainstreet Coalition, vowed to confront DeLay and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) about his concerns that GOP leaders were waging a campaign to intimidate moderates into submission.

Castle was angered by the Republican Steering Committee’s decision to pass over a number of more senior moderate candidates when handing out committee gavels. He was also outraged by the recent disclosure, first reported in Roll Call, that one of DeLay’s political action committees gave $50,000 to the Club for Growth, a conservative group which makes no bones about trying to oust centrist Republicans.

After the meeting, Castle seemed at least mollified that DeLay would take the time to listen to their policy concerns. During the gathering, when some centrists expressed concern about the elimination of the tax on corporate dividends in the economic stimulus package, DeLay explained that the Ways and Means Committee and the rest of the Conference would have a chance to work its will on the package. Before DeLay arrived, the group had discussed the same concerns about the economic stimulus package with Commerce Secretary Don Evans.

Curiously though, Castle did not ask one question in the meeting, according to a GOP aide.

DeLay received only one inquiry from Rep. James Greenwood (R-Pa.) about his Club for Growth donation and once again stressed that he gave the money during the general, to be used against Democrats, not the primary campaign against Republicans.

“We have a concern in that we think that that’s support for an organization that’s an anarchist as far as Republican moderates are concerned,” Castle said. “He obviously doesn’t agree with that.”

Castle said the meeting did not address the deeper fears that he and a number of his moderate colleagues share about the direction DeLay and the leadership is taking the Conference.

“That conversation remains to take place,” Castle said after the meeting. “I plan on having that.”

“I have a continuing and abiding concern that moderates are uncomfortable in the Conference and that becoming chairs of committees has come down to a litmus test on voting. I don’t think that’s conducive to the Conference as a whole.”

In a brief interview, DeLay stressed the important role moderates play in the Conference.

“A majority is a majority because we have moderates to conservatives. All Members are important,” DeLay said, noting that he had worked hard to retain the seats of Reps. Wayne Gilchrest (Md.) and Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), as well as former Rep. Connie Morella (Md.) and, in the past, then-Rep. Marge Roukema (N.J.).

During the meeting, Rep. Sue Kelly (N.Y.) defended DeLay’s commitment to helping moderates retain their seats, noting the Texas Republican had worked hard on her behalf.

But DeLay did not apologize for the Club for Growth contribution. In fact, he said he will continue to donate to the group.

“Yes, I gave $50,000 to the Club for Growth,” he said. “I’ll continue to give to them. But I’m also working with the Club for Growth to convince them they ought to go after liberal Democrats.”

Earlier in the day, the top five House GOP leaders and Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot met with 16 conservative black leaders to develop ideas about how the Republican Party can reach out to their community and put any damage inflicted by Sen. Trent Lott’s (Miss.) racially insensitive remarks late last year behind them.

The meeting follows a similar gathering with Sen. Bill Frist (Tenn.), initiated in part by black leader and conservative columnist Armstrong Williams, who has expressed outrage over Lott’s comments.

Williams was also on hand for yesterday’s discussion, along with Ken Blackwell, Ohio’s secretary of state; Alphonso Jackson, deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Shannon Reeves, secretary of the California Republican Party; and Linda Softli, president of Black Republican Women; among others.

Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) said the meeting had been planned for some time and was not necessarily a reaction to Lott’s fall from grace, although she acknowledged that the timing was good.

“We have set a course to make a concerted effort to reach out to minorities,” Pryce said, “to impress upon minorities that the Republican Party offers them the most in terms of values, in terms of realizing their full potential.”

Pryce said the group discussed the need to hire more minority staffers in House GOP offices so they can rise in the party ranks to become leaders, an idea a GOP aide said Blackwell spearheaded. The leaders also talked about the need to step up efforts to communicate to black voters through Christian radio and black churches.

The most prominent black conservative notably absent from the meeting was former House GOP Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.). Watts retired last year after spending eight years trying to attain the same goals set forth in yesterday’s meeting — with very few tangible results.

But Pryce said she did not think Watts’ absence made the task any harder. “It’s not anymore difficult than it always was,” she said.

Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), however, disagrees.

“I think it’s clear when you look at both sides of the aisle at the president’s State of the Union speech, you have to ask the question: Which side is more reflective of our society as a whole? Which one would give hope to an African-American child that you can move up within our society and succeed? The answer becomes clear,” he said.

While Cummings called the gathering of GOP leaders and black leaders “nice,” he said in the end voters will be moved by “policy not words.”

The Maryland Democrat went on to criticize what he viewed as Bush’s 180-degree about-face on the issue. Bush was right to reject Lott’s words as not reflecting the Republican Party or society as a whole, Cummings said. But then just weeks afterward, the president sent the same controversial judicial nominees up to the Senate that the CBC had rejected last year and then supported the elimination of affirmative action at the University of Michigan.

“This meeting may be a step to try to bridge the gap between the African-American community and the Republican Party, but I think it falls quite short,” he said.

John Bresnahan contributed to this report.

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