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Duckworth, Hirono back off threat of opposing Biden nominees in push for AAPI representation

Savannah Behrmann and Ledyard King, USA TODAY
·5 min read
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WASHINGTON – Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., had told reporters Tuesday she would not support any more of President Joe Biden's nondiverse nominees until he appoints more Asian Americans to his Cabinet.

But she, and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, dropped that ultimatum late Tuesday after multiple conversations with White House officials and agreement about representation.

Biden's Cabinet — which is shaping up to be the most diverse in U.S. history – does not include a Cabinet secretary of Asian American or Pacific Islander descent. Every presidential Cabinet since 2000 has included an Asian American at the secretary level until now.

Duckworth had told reporters that when she brought up this issue in the past — and most recently Monday night — White House officials had responded by pointing to Kamala Harris' role as vice president, which is part of the Cabinet. Harris is the first African American and South Asian American woman to be elected vice president.

'Insulting and frustrating': Community leaders decry lack of Asian Americans in Biden's top Cabinet picks

Duckworth, who was born in Thailand, said the notion the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders community doesn't "need anybody else is insulting."

"That is not something you would say to the Black caucus, 'Well, you have Kamala, we're not going to put any more African Americans in the Cabinet because you have Kamala.' Why would you say it to AAPI?" Duckworth asked.

Duckworth had said until the White House "can call me and tell me what the proposal is," she is a "no vote on the floor, on all non diversity nominees."

"You know, I will vote for racial minorities and I will vote for LGBTQ, but anybody else I'm not voting for," Duckworth stated.

Duckworth had elaborated the proposal from the White House could have been nominating someone from the AAPI community for Federal Communications Commission director, OMB director, or "they could make a commitment for a future Cabinet secretary, an actual Cabinet secretary."

"The President has made it clear that his administration will reflect the diversity of the country," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Tuesday night. "That has always been, and remains our goal. The White House will add a senior level Asian American Pacific Islander liaison, who will ensure the community's voice is further represented and heard."

Duckworth's communications director, Ben Garmisa, said in a statement Tuesday night, "Sen. 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.

Hirono, who backed Duckworth, was born in Japan. The two are the only senators of Asian descent.

The Hawaii Democrat said, "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."

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When asked about threats from Duckworth and Hirono to block nominees, Biden told reporters Tuesday evening: “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.”

Duckworth’s remarks came only weeks after a backlash over past inflammatory tweets prompted Neera Tanden to withdraw herself from consideration to lead Biden’s Office of Management and Budget. As OMB director, Tanden would have become the first woman of color and first South Asian person to lead the powerful executive office.

More: Biden budget pick Neera Tanden drops out of nomination process after confirmation process unravels

The Senate confirmed Katherine Tai last week as the top U.S. trade representative. She will be the first Asian American person and first woman of color to hold the position, which is part of Biden's Cabinet, but does not have a secretary title.

Duckworth's and Hirono's position Tuesday shows how fragile Biden's task is to win approval for nominees and key legislation in a chamber that's evenly divided.

As West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin recently has shown on the minimum wage debate, unemployment insurance and the filibuster, a single senator can wield outsized power to pass — or prevent — key legislation.

It’s not clear which — if any — Biden nominees would have been scuttled by opposition from Duckworth. But one might have been Colin Kahl, a former Obama-era aide whom Biden has nominated as undersecretary of defense for policy. Kahl will likely need every Democrat in the 50-50 Senate to support him after his past jabs at Republicans and his harsh criticism of the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

More: There's been a rise in anti-Asian attacks. Here's how to be an ally to the community.

Duckworth's concerns also follow last week’s mass shooting in Atlanta that left six Asian Americans dead.

The tragedy, as well as an increase in hate crimes against the racial minority, has prompted some in Congress who are of Asian descent to sound the alarm on derisive language about the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic more than a year ago.

Contributing: Marc Ramirez, Joey Garrison USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Duckworth, Hirono back off threat to oppose some Biden nominees