Kevin McCarthy’s battle for the House speakership made for compelling political theater this week, but it could have dramatic implications for America’s seniors.  According to news reports, McCarthy (R-CA) made concessions to holdout House members that would empower right-wingers in Congress who want to slash Social Security and Medicare — in order to fulfill his personal ambition to become Speaker.

CNN’s Manu Raju reported Friday afternoon that McCarthy agreed to demands from Freedom Caucus members regarding upcoming debt ceiling negotiations.  In the putative deal, McCarthy reportedly has pledged not to raise the debt ceiling (so that the federal government can pay its existing obligations) without concessions on spending from Democrats and the White House on domestic programs.

If this reporting is accurate, it means that McCarthy has effectively agreed to risk a U.S. government default on its financial obligations (and the financial chaos that would ensue) in order to force cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other safety net programs — despite the fact that these programs are incredibly popular and vital to the well-being of American seniors. (Not to mention that lifting the debt ceiling is essential for the U.S. to pay its existing bills.)

This scorched-earth strategy, which one CNN analyst characterized as “taking us to the brink of destruction,” is not what voters demanded in the 2022 elections.  In fact, in denying Republicans an anticipated “Red Wave” last fall, the electorate clearly rejected MAGA extremism and MAGA-nomics.

Nevertheless, a small cadre of right-wing Freedom Caucus members are the ‘tail wagging the dog’ in McCarthy’s bid for the speakership.  These extremists oppose spending on social programs no matter how important or popular those may be.  (One commentator rightly branded them as “nihilists” who don’t believe in a functional federal government.)

We have seen this before. In 2011, Tea Party members instigated a battle over the debt ceiling that resulted in harmful caps on domestic spending that haunt us to this day. “I was around in 2011,” said former Obama advisor David Axelrod on CNN today, “and I remember that Republicans took us to the precipice of what would have been a catastrophe,” by risking a federal default on its financial obligations.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) helped negotiate concessions from Kevin McCarthy

Beyond the debt ceiling maneuverings, Freedom Caucus members reportedly are wringing other concessions from McCarthy in return for their votes that also could be devastating for older Americans.  These include rule changes that could make it harder to raise revenue and easier to cut spending on social programs.

The hard right would get approval power over some plum committee assignments, including a third of the members on the influential Rules Committee, which controls what legislation reaches the floor and in what form. And spending bills would have to be considered under so-called open rules, allowing any member to put to a vote an unlimited number of changes that could gut or scuttle the legislation altogether. – New York Times, 1/6/23

“That does not bode well for programs like Social Security and Medicare that are going to need an infusion of revenue,” says Maria Freese, policy advisor here at NCPSSM.  “The new rules would make it easier for House Republicans to keep cutting taxes for the wealthy while gutting programs that everyday Americans depend on.”

If Kevin McCarthy does prevail (which as of Friday afternoon looks increasingly likely) and achieves his years-long dream of being House Speaker, seniors will be among those everyday Americans paying the price.