Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) backed down from their threats to oppose any “non-diversity” nominees put forward by President Joe Biden, saying late Tuesday that the White House had committed to elevate Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for high-level positions in his administration.
“Senator Duckworth appreciates the Biden Administration’s assurances that it will do much more to elevate AAPI voices and perspectives at the highest levels of government,” the lawmaker’s spokesperson, Ben Garmisa, said in a statement. Garmisa added those pledges “included appointing an AAPI senior White House official to represent the community, secure the confirmation of AAPI appointments and advance policy proposals that are relevant and important to the community.”
Soon after, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration would name a senior AAPI liaison “who will ensure the community’s voice is further represented and heard.”
“The President has made it clear that his Administration will reflect the diversity of the country,” Psaki added.
Democrats hold a slim 50-50 majority in the chamber, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote. Any break with the party line can impede confirmation or legislative votes.
Duckworth added that she would no longer “stand in the way” of Biden’s nominees, which she said will include unnamed “AAPI leaders.”
Earlier Tuesday Duckworth said she would oppose Biden’s nominees, voicing frustration with the lack of AAPI representation in the top echelons of the president’s administration. Hirono, the only other Asian American Democrat in the chamber, said later that day she would join her colleague.
“I’ve been talking to them for months. And they’re still not aggressive,” Duckworth told reporters on Tuesday. “So I am not going to be voting for any nominees from the White House other than diversity nominees. I’ll be a ‘No’ on everyone until they figure this out.”
“I will vote for racial minorities and LGTBQ, but anybody else I’m not voting for,” Duckworth added, making clear her stance applied to both judicial and sub-Cabinet executive nominations.
Duckworth, one of only two Asian Americans in the U.S. Senate, had been pushing the Biden administration to nominate an AAPI person to the president’s Cabinet for months. The Senate this week confirmed Biden’s 15th Cabinet secretary. None of the 15 are Asian American.
The Senate confirmed Katherine Tai to serve as U.S. trade representative last week. Tai is the first Asian-American and first woman of color to serve in the position. While the office of U.S. trade representative is technically considered a Cabinet-level position, advocates would like to see an AAPI Cabinet secretary.
The lack of AAPI representation in Biden’s top Cabinet picks became more glaring after a series of mass shootings at massage parlors in Georgia last week set off a new wave of fear among Asian Americans across the country and national calls to address AAPI discrimination. A gunman in Atlanta killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent.
Duckworth suggested the Biden administration select AAPI nominees to lead the Office of Management and Budget, which is currently available due to the withdrawal of Neera Tanden, or to serve on the Federal Communications Commission. She also named the position of assistant secretary of defense as another option.
Duckworth’s threat to block future Biden nominees followed a tense phone call on Monday with top White House officials who, according to the senator, pointed to Vice President Kamala Harris’s South Asian roots when confronted about the lack of AAPI representation in Biden’s Cabinet.
“The first words out of the staff mouth was, ‘Well we’re very proud of Vice President Harris,’ which is incredibly insulting,” Duckworth said Tuesday.
Hirono, the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had said she was also planning to vote no on some Biden picks until the administration put forward more AAPI nominees.
“We would like to have a commitment from the White House that there’ll be more diversity representation in the Cabinet and in senior White House positions,” Hirono told reporters earlier Tuesday.