CAPE CORAL, Fla. — Congressman Byron Donalds (R-Naples) walked into the start of the 118th Congress last week in Washington and soon found himself in the midst of the battle for leadership within the House Republicans.
Donalds, starting off his second term in representing Florida's 19th district which covers most of Lee and Collier Counties, gained a national scope in the middle of last week. California Republican Kevin McCarthy, eventually, became House Speaker late Friday night on the fifteenth ballot after failing to secure enough conservative support. Earlier in the week, conservatives backed Donalds, with the Florida Congressman picking up 20 votes in the fourth and fifth ballots.
On Tuesday afternoon, I spoke with the Congressman through Zoom.
"My focus was making sure we brought the conference together that we elected a speaker and then we get on with our business," Donalds said. "(The nomination) was kind of surprising at first when members decided that's what they wanted to do. And then the question for me was, you know, do you use take this opportunity to try to, you know, try to lead us in a direction where we could bring it in for a landing and then successfully for everybody, we were able to do that."
The start of the new Congress also comes at a curious point. Republicans hold a 222-212 majority in the House while the Senate still keeps to a Democratic majority, now at 51 (49 Democrats plus two Independents who join their causes) after gaining a seat. Add in President Biden in the White House and it's similar to what Congress was in 2011-15. The 2010 mid-terms, with Tea Party candidates winning for Republicans, led to four years in Washington with the same set-up: Republicans in the House, Democrats in the Senate and White House as the two sides battled over government funding over years of gridlock. In the 2014 mid-terms, Republicans finally won the majority in the Senate.
I asked Donalds about working in a split Congress, similar to 2011-2015.
"I'm under no illusions that this is gonna be a smooth relationship between (the House and) the White House and the Senate," Donalds said. "The Democrats, for the last for the last two years, have really put through some some terrible policies that have hurt Americans, regardless of your politics. Our job is going to be to really lay out what our agenda is and explain that demonstrate that to the American people and in other places where we can find those areas to work together with the other side of the aisle to to accomplish things. But that's going to take some serious compromises that I'm not sure that Democrats are prepared to make."
Among other committees, Donalds serves on the Budget Committee, a group with high influence as the House sets appropriations for future funding.
"We were actually having conversations about what spending was gonna look like this morning as a conference," said Donalds. "First things first, we have debt ceiling that's coming up with a couple of months. We're gonna have to figure that out. Then we're gonna have to fund the government again, come this September for starting October 1. So there's gonna have to be some sort of real agreements on that. Listen, you can't continue to massively overspend, using COVID-19 as the excuse you can't do it. If you want to be supportive of Ukraine, you have to actually have an audit function and tight controls on the money. You can't just throw it out the window and ignore it. At the end of the day, funding our government or doing anything in our government, we have to secure our southern border. It has been un-secure and that's being nice, it's been un-secure for two years under Joe Biden's leadership. So I think the first thing is what does President Biden want to do in terms of coming to the table, and then from there, we'll negotiate and see where we land."
His statements on the U.S.-Mexico border come as President Biden is in the midst of a trip to Mexico to meet with other North American leaders, with immigration as a key issue. Even in Florida, border agents have encountered hundreds of boats with migrants trying to reach the Florida Keys and other parts of the state from other nations.
"Well, it's not just about Florida, per se, it's really about Washington and it's about the President," Donalds said. "First and foremost is you have to stop taking asylum applications at our southern border because the truth is the drug cartels are trafficking people to our southern border. They're making billions of dollars doing it. That is a tragedy. That's frankly, an indictment of the Biden administration. So that's number one. Number two is that there are young girls will be subjected to sex slavery, and who are being raped on the journey. So you got to take away the assignment process at the southern border. You have to finish border wall construction because, yes, walls do work, go after the White House and how they feel about their fencing. I think they like it. I think it's secure. So why would you secure the White House and you're not going to secure the nation? That's real simple stuff. Then the third piece is, is that we do we need to work with Mexico and other countries out so that so that the cartels aren't weaponizing illegal immigration for their own profits. I think those are the three key things that we do. My hope is that Democrats get serious about this, because they've largely ignored the problem and it's only gotten worse."
Of the 435 U.S. House districts, Congressman Donalds may represent the district that took on the most natural disaster damage in 2022 from Hurricane Ian in September. Donalds praised much of the FEMA response but talked about the situation with people who need trailers on their properties as temporary shelter.
"With respect to FEMA, one of the things that we're having real challenges with is FEMA policy, where they don't put mobile trailers in a flood zone," said Donalds. "What we've been explaining to FEMA is that all of Southwest Florida is basically in a flood zone. So the people of Southwest Florida aren't getting some of the help that they need from FEMA, because of their rule on on putting temporary housing in a flooded area. So the state of Florida under Governor DeSantis leadership has just said we'll just do it, we'll just pay for it and we'll deal with FEMA later. That's a great help to the people who are trying to rebuild other than the housing situation. FEMA, (Small Business Administration) they've really been doing good work with our community. I know everybody wants to get back to where they were pre-storm. It's going to take time, but a lot of the work has been very good. The state government, federal government has actually worked in conjunction a lot of these things. Now we're trying to just clear up red tape on rules that just don't really matter. Because when the chips are down, and disaster strike, you know, people don't want to hear 'oh, well our rule is that', they just want action. They want to be able to rebuild as quickly as possible."