Watch CBSN Live

As Congress deals with Syria, budget fights loom for GOP

As soon as the debate over Syria is settled, Congress turns to another pressing fight: figuring out how to fund the government for next year. While some hope for a short term deal without much hoopla, others are gearing for a major battle. Many conservatives urge defunding of Obamacare as part of any deal to keep the rest of government running.

No deal means a government shutdown. But many Republicans go into this fight under pressure from all sides, including a part of the base that sees this battle as time to exert its strongest leverage.

"When is the moment that Republicans will do what they say they are for," asks Chris Chocola, a former Republican congressman and now the president of the conservative Club for Growth. "All of them ran on defunding or repealing Obamacare... This is a test," he added.

The politics of Congress' Syria votes

The word "test" should be a warning for Republicans as they approach these critical votes ahead. The Club for Growth is the only conservative organization that actively runs primary challenger candidates against sitting members of congress, and they're a prime example of outside groups flexing serious, and possibly very effective, political muscle to influence politics and policy.

Just ask Mike Simpson. He's a two-term Republican congressman from a very Republican district in Idaho. It's a place President Obama got just 34 percent of the vote; where Simpson - or any Republican - would surely to win in November 2014 just by virtue of having the "R" next to their name.

Simpson has drawn a primary challenge in the Republican nomination contest largely by running afoul of the Club for Growth. Although the majority of his votes have been conservative - Simpson's Club for Growth rating is 58 percent - that simply isn't good enough compared to how he'd campaigned - or, as Chocola told CBS News in an interview, it's "dismal" on pro-growth, deficit- and tax-cutting positions.

Chocola doesn't call the primary challenges pressure, but rather reminders that hold members accountable, especially in heavily partisan districts. There are a number of sitting Republican members in the group's crosshairs now, posted in black-and-white photos and tagged with the label "RINO" - Republican in Name Only - on their website,

They will "target incumbents who do not support a pro-growth agenda," Chocola said. The scores and negatives come from ranges of votes, from the bailout, to "cash for clunkers," to anything the group labels pork. What should be another ominous sign for most Republican members is that only three House members and two sitting Senators have a 100 percent rating in their 2012 scorecard.

In perhaps the most telling example of how grassroots democracy can work in the internet age, there's even a button where users can recommend someone to run as a primary challenger for one of the "RINOs." That's how the Club helped recruit Bryan Smith, an Idaho Falls lawyer who is running against Simpson.

But Chocola knows that the ends are policy. Politics is just a means to that end.

"We are not there to beat people, we try to promote pro-growth policies. The effectiveness of the group is its uncompromising adherence to mission and our proven ability to influence elections."

When the budget battles unfold next month on Capitol Hill, remember that some of this is made possible by safe, gerrymandered congressional districts too. Of the districts listed on the site, Mitt Romney got, on average, 61 percent of the vote in their districts, and only one is even potentially competitive by its partisan index.

Not only are there a lot of conservative voters in these places, but conservative groups risk little in the long-term by going after incumbents. A Republican, whether the one they backed in primaries or not, is likely to win the district in the end. Getting someone who is closer to exactly in step is the goal, and it comes with little downside. Chocola admits that has opened opportunities, but the group still is careful to pick and choose its candidates, because a more consistent batting average means better influence.

The group's influence is very notable on the Senate side, too. Chocola touts Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas - one of the leading advocates of the push to defund Obamacare - as a success story, noting that they "backed [Cruz] when he was at 3 percent in the polls." But Cruz impressed the group both with his political skills and principles, and now is national figure. Other success stories include Republican Sens. Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey and Mike Lee. The Club for Growth is hoping to add to that list, having already endorsed Rep. Tom Cotton who is running for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas.

Another race that is being heavily watched is the re-election bid of the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell's compromises with the Obama administration on previous budget and tax deals have soured many conservatives and at least one conservative candidate has entered the primary battle against him.

Chocola says his group is watching how that race unfolds and has made no conclusions yet about getting in there. He says they generally look at races where their involvement can make a difference in the outcome. Their backing usually means millions of dollars in donations for top candidates in addition to advertising and other support.

It doesn't always work out, though: the candidate who runs on a no-compromise platform can spur a backlash from voters eager to see the Congress end its deadlocked ways, and a government shutdown is not popular. Republicans, for instance, lost a sure Senate pickup last cycle with Richard Mourdock in Indiana for those very reasons. As this unfolds, that dynamic is a telling early indicator for 2014.

Republicans have a very good chance to win the Senate back and are in excellent position to keep the House. An unpopular shutdown, if they were to get blamed, could risk all that by costing them with moderates and right-leaning independents.

While the Club for Growth opposes a shutdown, they favor rational policy - Chocola would rather elect politicians who will make the tough choices now so to avoid shutdown like scenarios in the future. Really what he wants is a Congress that does the right thing.

"Our role is to try to define the ideal and encourage people to get as close to it as possible." Taking on incumbents is part of that process, he said. "We don't challenge people just for the fun of it or to make their lives miserable, we hope to find a better alternative."

View CBS News In