Tiahrt's path to power takes a new turn in his bid for whip

In the 18 months since 16-year-old Luke Tiahrt died by suicide, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) has maintained a frenetic pace of legislative and political activity, which culminated in January when he jumped into the race for majority whip.

“I miss Luke every day,” Tiahrt said in an interview yesterday. “I have thrown myself into my work. For me to stay busy has been very good.”

He joined the House Intelligence Permanent Select Committee last year and traveled extensively to understand the intelligence community better, chaired the Economic Competitiveness Caucus and acted as a rhetorical gunslinger to defend President Bush and GOP lawmakers.

Until he decided to run for whip, Tiahrt had traveled a well-worn path to power by divvying up the federal budget on the exalted Appropriations Committee and twisting arms as a deputy whip. In 2002, newly elected Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) passed him over when he selected Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) as chief deputy whip.

But when Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) stepped down last month as majority leader, Tiahrt spent the weekend talking with friends and family about whether he should run for the whip’s job.

Nobody told him not to do it, and before making his decision, Tiahrt recalled a story Patti Davis had told about her father, President Reagan.

“She asked her father if he prayed before flying in an airplane,” Tiahrt said. “’She said her dad would say, ‘I just pray that God’s will be done.’”

“I believe that there is a greater power and he gets involved in the process, sometimes directly and indirectly,” Tiahrt added. “That’s what I did. I prayed that God’s will be done.”

But as Tiahrt prayed, Cantor pounced in the GOP leadership frenzy, as did one of his closest friend’s in Congress, Mike Rogers (R-Mich.); Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) entered the race last year.

“Running against the institutional forces, we might have been a day late, we didn’t have the lists, we didn’t have numbers, so we commiserated over that,” said Rogers. “We’re trying to have fun with this thing, but we both know it’s a serious race and it matters.”

Undeterred by Cantor’s momentum, Tiahrt moved forward with his new found energy and promised to bring a “firm and focused voice” to the leadership table.

He held a press conference on a dreary morning early last month that only a half-dozen reporters attended. But Tiahrt, dressed in a crisp white shirt, red tie and not a hair out of place, appeared upbeat. In the first, and perhaps only instance of negative campaigning over the past month, Tiahrt needled and mocked Cantor’s vote count by punching numbers into an old-fashioned adding machine.

He built a whip team led by three GOP committee chairmen, Reps. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), and Don Manzullo (Ill.) and secured support from Kansas Reps. Jim Ryun and Jerry Moran.

Other public supporters include, Reps. Lee Terry (Neb.), Chris Cannon (Utah), and John Peterson (Pa.).

“I like his temperament,” said Peterson, adding that Tiahrt and Blunt were better consensus builders than DeLay.

If Rogers is running as the outsider, Tiahrt is casting himself as the outsider on the inside — a new face with a combination of corporate know-how and old-school political skills to win votes.

“A firm and focused voice is missing right now,” he said, adding that his biggest complaint is that the current leadership team has moved too many complex bills too fast muddling the GOP’s message.

Two days before an expected vote, Tiahrt said about half of the 232 GOP lawmakers remain undecided and that with three candidates for majority leader, four candidates running for majority whip and four more for policy chairman, lawmakers are suffering from phone fatigue.

Rogers said he and Tiahrt have not discussed strategies to force the race to a second ballot or what they would do if the race reached a second ballot.

“I’m at peace with what ever the outcome is,” said Tiahrt.