Duckworth backs off threat to oppose Biden nominees over lack of Asian American representation

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Nicholas Wu
·4 min read
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Sen. Tammy Duckworth on Tuesday night backed down from her threat to block future Biden picks over a lack of nominees of Asian American descent after receiving "assurances" from the Biden administration that it would elevate Asian American voices in the federal government.

In a statement, Duckworth spokesperson Ben Garmisa said the Biden administration had assured the Illinois Democrat it would elevate Asian American voices, appoint an Asian American senior White House official "to represent the community," secure confirmation for Asian American nominees, and back policies important to the Asian American community.

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

Long-simmering Democratic tensions over a lack of Asian American representation in President Joe Biden’s administration boiled over Tuesday evening when Duckworth vowed to block future Biden picks without a White House plan to tap more nominees of Asian American descent.

Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and the first Thai American woman in Congress, said it was “unacceptable” that Biden has named no Asian American Cabinet secretaries and vowed to oppose nominees on the floor “until they figure this out." Her gambit could have been a substantial obstacle to any future Biden nominees in the 50-50 Senate.

Duckworth told reporters that a Monday evening call between Senate Democrats and Biden aides was the "trigger" for her holdup plans. After she asked about Asian American representation in the Biden administration, Duckworth recalled, White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon made a reference to Vice President Kamala Harris’ South Asian American heritage that the senator called “incredibly insulting.”

Duckworth’s promised opposition — which she said would not have included “diversity nominees” like those backed by the Congressional Asian Pacific American, Hispanic, or Black Caucuses — came as Asian American lawmakers and advocates expressed frustration about their lack of representation in Biden’s Cabinet. Members of the Hill's Asian Pacific American Caucus had pushed for nominees like Vivek Murthy and Julie Su to be appointed as Cabinet secretaries, but Murthy ended up nominated as Surgeon General and Su as the deputy Labor secretary.

Although none of Biden’s Cabinet secretaries are of Asian American or Pacific Islander descent, U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai is of Chinese American descent and technically occupies a Cabinet-level position. The nomination of Neera Tanden, who is Indian American, to become Biden's budget chief fell apart after opposition from Republican senators and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Another Asian American Democratic senator, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, said later Tuesday that "I am prepared to join" Duckworth in pushing back on Biden's nominees until senior posts in his administration incorporate better Asian American representation.

"This is not about pitting one diversity group against another," Hirono said on MSNBC. "I think this is a well-articulated, focused position."

But Hirono said in a statement later Thursday she would drop her planned opposition to Biden's nominees following a "productive" conversation with the White House about diversity.

Asked Tuesday about the senators' threats, Biden told reporters, “We have the most diverse Cabinet in history. We have a lot of Asian Americans that are in the Cabinet and in sub-Cabinet levels.”

White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond on Tuesday evening said the administration has been "very consistent that we value diversity," pointing to the roles of Murthy, Tai and Harris. Related to Tanden's nomination, he quoted a Biden refrain: "Show me your budget, and I will show you your values."

"We are appointing more Asian Americans to key positions, so we're very confident that we will continue to do that," Richmond told CNN. "And, of course, we respect Sen. Duckworth and Sen. Hirono very much. Their feelings matter to us, their opinions matter to us and the fact that they are of the opinion that they are not seeing enough, we will take that to heart and we will continue to do what we were doing in terms of making sure our Cabinet looks like the country."

Most Biden nominees set for Senate consideration this week are of diverse backgrounds, including proposed assistant Health and Human Services secretary Rachel Levine and proposed deputy Treasury secretary Adewale Adeyemo.

Duckworth's declaration could have been tested once, during the vote on proposed deputy Energy secretary David Turk, but Turk's confirmation is not expected to falter given his level of GOP support.

One beleaguered Biden Pentagon nominee, Colin Kahl, could have seen his fortunes affected by Duckworth's promised blockade. The Senate Armed Services Committee has yet to advance Kahl's nomination.

Asked what appointments the Biden administration could consider an Asian American nominee for, Duckworth suggested the FCC, the Office of Management and Budget or a future Cabinet secretary spot.

Benjamin Din contributed to this report.