"To the extent that my remarks helped the Democrats in Washington to take the focus, even for one minute, off of their irresponsible expansion of government, I truly apologize," Steele said late Monday.
Steele's statement capped a remarkable weekend of awkward sparring between Republican officials and Limbaugh, who has repeatedly voiced his desire that President Barack Obama's economic policies fail.
The back and forth reached a fever pitch Monday afternoon when Limbaugh roared back in response to a Steele interview with CNN's D.L. Hughley Saturday night. In that interview, Steele rejected assertions that Limbaugh was the "de facto" leader of the GOP. "Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment," Steele said then. "Yes, it's incendiary. Yes, it's ugly."
Limbaugh used his Monday talk show to unleash on Steele.
"Why are you running the Republican Party?" Limbaugh asked on his radio show. "Why do you claim you lead the Republican Party when you seem obsessed with seeing to it that President Obama succeeds? ... I would be embarrassed to say that I'm in charge of the Republican Party in the sad-sack state that it's in. If I were chairman of the Republican Party, given the state that it's in, I would quit."
The infighting between a top party official and a conservative opinion leader who claims to have an audience of 20 million developed into a distracting episode for a party struggling to compete with a popular president and find its voice as the opposition party.
"I respect Rush Limbaugh, he is a national conservative leader, and in no way do I want to diminish his voice," Steele said in a statement late Monday. "I'm sure that he and I will agree most of the time, but will probably disagree some as well, which is fine.
"The Democrats are doing everything they can to find ways to take people's attention off of their massive 36-billion-dollar-a-day spending spree that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have embarked on. To the extent that my remarks helped the Democrats in Washington to take the focus, even for one minute, off of their irresponsible expansion of government, I truly apologize."
Democrats, who have been trying to handcuff Republicans to Limbaugh, reacted gleefully to Steele's apology, saying it illustrated Limbaugh's influence over the party.
"Chairman Steele's reversal this evening and his apology to Limbaugh proves the unfortunate point that Limbaugh is the leading force behind the Republican Party, its politics and its obstruction of President Obama's agenda in Washington," Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said Monday evening.
Over the past several days, the White House and its Democratic allies have launched a concerted effort to draw attention to Limbaugh in a belief that his support exists only among the most die-hard conservatives.
Democrats have used Limbaugh as their foil instead of Republican congressional leaders, recognizing that part of Obama's appeal is his outreach to Republicans, even if it's not intended to bear immediate fruit.
On Sunday, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said: "It's our desire that the Republicans would work with us and try to be constructive, rather than adopt the philosophy of somebody like Rush Limbaugh, who is praying for failure." It was a theme that Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs reiterated during his press briefing Monday.
This weekend, a labor-liberal coalition began airing about $100,000 in ads on national cable television and in Washington markets in an effort to handcuff the GOP to Limbaugh, whose provocations don't always follow party script.
"Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party - he says jump and they say how high," said Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change, the liberal advocacy group that is sponsoring the ads with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Limbaugh has refused to back down. Speaking Saturday to a conservative convention in Washington, he said: "What is so strange about being honest and saying, 'I want Barack Obama to fail if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation?' Why would I want that to succeed?"
The words made some Republicans besides Steele flinch. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 Republican leader in the House, on Sunday seemed eager to change the subject. "Nobody - no Republican, no Democrat - wants this president to fail, nor do they want this country to fail or the economy to fail," he said on ABC's "This Week."