Duckworth, Hirono change course on Biden nominees after White House conversations on AAPI representation

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Allan Smith and Sahil Kapur and Frank Thorp V and Dartunorro Clark
·3 min read
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Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., reversed course on vowing to object to President Joe Biden's nominees because of a lack of Asian American and Pacific Islander representation Tuesday evening after a spokesperson from her office said she had received assurances from the Biden 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, including 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," said Ben Garmisa, a spokesperson for Duckworth.

"Accordingly, she will not stand in the way of President Biden's qualified nominees — which will include more AAPI leaders," Garmisa said.

Duckworth, who is Asian American, had been joined by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who also had said she would vote to block nominees for lack of AAPI representation. She, too, changed her position late Tuesday.

Earlier, Duckworth and Hirono had expressed frustration that none of Biden's 15 secretary-level Cabinet members are Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders.

"There's no AAPI representation in the Cabinet," Duckworth told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "There's not a single AAPI in a Cabinet position. That's not acceptable. That's what I told the White House."

"I've been talking to them for months, and they're still not aggressive, so I'm not going to be voting for any nominee from the White House other than diversity nominees," she said, "I'll be a 'no' on everyone until they figure this out."

Duckworth said she told the White House earlier Tuesday about her stance. Hirono had joined Duckworth's call in an interview Tuesday afternoon on MSNBC's "Deadline: White House."

But late Tuesday, Hirono's office issued a statement that said that she, too, had had a "productive conversation" with the White House to reinforce her perspective about the importance of diversity in the Cabinet.

"Based on the private conversation we had, I will continue voting to confirm the historic and highly qualified nominees President Biden has appointed to serve in his administration," she said in the statement.

"I welcome the appointment of a senior level White House liaison to the AAPI community to further strengthen our voice," the statement said.

The 15 department secretary-level positions in Biden's Cabinet have already been filled. While she is not among the Cabinet secretaries, his recently confirmed pick for U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai, is the first Asian American to hold that role, which is considered a Cabinet-level position. Additionally, Kiran Ahuja, Biden's nominee to run the Office of Personnel Management, the federal government's human resources agency, would be the first Asian American woman to hold that post.

Duckworth and Hirono, Democratic senators of AAPI heritage, spoke amid a rise in anti-Asian American hate incidents during the coronavirus pandemic and a week after a gunman in Georgia shot and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian American, in a string of spa shootings.

On a Zoom call with the White House and Democratic senators Monday, the two senators confronted White House deputy chief of staff Jen O'Malley Dillon about the lack of AAPI Cabinet secretaries, four Senate aides familiar with the call told Axios.