WASHINGTON -- Thursday night's failure by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to garner enough support among House Reopublicans for his fiscal cliff "Plan B" was a major setback for his role as speaker. It was also a clear example of the growing influence of outside groups over the GOP caucus.
"We were on the phone all day long today, talking to members of Congress," said Mike Needham, executive director of Heritage Action, the political arm of the powerful conservative nonprofit Heritage Foundation. "I think we definitely changed people's minds today, absolutely."
Lacking the votes to pass his bill, Boehner on Thursday night canceled a floor vote on Plan B and dismissed the House for the rest of the year. Republican leaders had been trying to persuade rank-and-file members to back Boehner's budget all week and by Thursday afternoon, Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) were confident they had enough votes to send the bill to the Senate. "We're going to have the votes," Cantor said at a press conference.
But as the afternoon wore on, the situation changed rapidly. By the time Boehner called the hastily scheduled caucus meeting, his bill was doomed. The bill, Boehner said after the meeting, "did not have sufficient support from our members to pass."
A leading Tea Party group, TheTeaParty.net, said it enlisted the help of former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) to urge Republicans in Congress to vote against Boehner's plan. "For the last three days, we've had Hayworth calling members of Congress," said Teaparty.net spokeswoman Scottie Nell Hughes. "And other staffers of ours have been calling chiefs of staff to make sure they knew what our positions are."
A spokesman for the Club for Growth, another major conservative group cited as an active participant, said that after it publicly issued a statement opposing Plan B on Wednesday afternoon, group representatives needed to make few phone calls on Thursday.
"Members of Congress know we're not afraid to get involved in a primary," Club for Growth's communications director, Barney Keller, told HuffPost on Thursday night. "Members know that the first thing we do is look to our scorecard, and decide who is a pro-growth vote and who isn't. And we felt that to vote in favor [of Boehner's plan] would be to vote for a tax increase, and against economic growth"
The efforts derailed the Republican leadership at the last minute.
The failure leaves President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) with little opposition in crafting a measure to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. When the House returns, its members will have few options -- either back the Senate bill or allow taxes to rise for the middle class.
Club for Growth's clout stems from its campaign spending. The group aims its spending on a few select races, and rewards fiscal conservatives while challenging moderate Republicans. It spent more than $20 million during the 2012 election cycle.
Keller was unapologetic about Club for Growth's impact on congressional races. "The number one thing people in Congress fear is losing their jobs," he said. "So we don't lobby members, we help educate them. And if you look at the rising stars of the [Republican] party, it's a lot of people who were supported by" Club for Growth.
The power of Club for Growth and other conservative groups to swing Republican votes in Congress underscores the defeat for Boehner and other House Republican leaders. At least one grassroots conservative group, American Majority Action, is calling for Boehner's replacement as speaker. "Tonight’s vote is a harbinger of things to come. Speaker Boehner is on the ropes & his speakership is in jeopardy," the group said. This is not the first time that American Majority Action has called for Boehner's replacement.
A senior GOP leadership aide emphatically denied that Boehner's role as speaker was under threat following Thursday's failed vote. But Keller, the Club for Growth spokesman, painted House leadership under Boehner in painfully unflattering terms. "The House leadership should be grateful that they were saved by their conference from raising taxes tonight," Keller said.
The Heritage Foundation, another group involved in the opposition to Plan B, is poised to see its influence rise in coming years. In January, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) will retire to become chairman of the group, a 501c3 nonprofit affiliate of Heritage Action. In this role, DeMint's power is likely to grow alongside that of Heritage and the other conservative outside groups.
Before Thursday's caucus meeting, DeMint helped put pressure on House Republicans. "I haven't talked to DeMint in a week," said Needham, the Heritage Action spokesman. "But I know he's been privately talking to people about the vote."
Keller said many GOP House members were grateful to have outside entities standing up to House leadership.
"We got a lot of calls from members tonight after the [informal] vote, and they were very gratified that this went down," Keller said. "We didn't talk to leadership ahead of it, but rank-and-file members should be proud of what they accomplished."