Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois is threatening to vote against any of President Joe Biden’s nominees who aren’t minorities over her fury that the Cabinet lacks Asian Americans, adding she found it “incredibly insulting” that a top White House official had pointed to Vice President Kamala Harris’ South Asian roots as sufficient in defending the diversity of the administration.
Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii will join Duckworth in opposing nominees on the floor until there’s movement by the White House to diversify the administration with Asian American appointments.
“President Biden will be the first President in 20 years without a Cabinet secretary who is AAPI,” a frustrated Duckworth told CNN.
If the two Democratic senators carry through with the threat, the confrontational stand could put executive branch and judicial picks in jeopardy in a 50-50 Senate if all Republicans vote against one of the President’s nominees — and the move is already imperiling a top Pentagon pick.
Duckworth said she has informed the White House she will oppose the nomination of Colin Kahl as the Pentagon’s top policy director, a nomination that was already hanging by a thread over criticism stemming from his past tweets.
The Democratic senators are indicating they will vote against non-minority nominees on the floor, not in committee, which could potentially allow Kahl to advance out of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Duckworth told CNN on Tuesday that she’s voting “no” on all of Biden’s upcoming nominees until the President makes a commitment and appoints Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to key executive branch positions. Duckworth was the first Thai American woman elected to Congress and the first female double amputee in the US Senate.
Hirono told reporters of the decision, “It means that 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. And until that happens, we will be able to join her in voting no on non-diversity nominees. I think that is a reasonable position.”
A lack of AAPI diversity in top roles in the new administration has come under increased scrutiny amid a rise in anti-Asian violence across the United States against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. Last week, eight people — six of whom were Asian women — were killed in Atlanta-area shootings at three spas.
Duckworth noted that Asian American lawmakers were told the US trade representative and the White House budget director would be Asian American. Katherine Tai was recently confirmed as trade representative. Tai, the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, is the first woman of color to be the top US trade negotiator. But after Neera Tanden’s nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget collapsed, Duckworth said it appears the White House is going in a different direction on that pick.
“To be told that you have Kamala Harris, we are very proud of her, you don’t need anybody else, is insulting,” Duckworth said, adding she’s been told that “multiple times” by the White House.
“That’s not something you would say to the Black caucus — that you have Kamala — we’re not going to be putting any African Americans in the Cabinet — why would you say that to AAPIs?”
Duckworth praised Biden’s comments at a Democratic retreat Monday night about violence against Asian Americans, but after he got off the call, things got contentious when White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon addressed concerns over lack of AAPI representation.
“When I asked about AAPI representation in the second part, the first words out of the staff’s mouth was: ‘We’re very proud of Vice President Harris,’ which was incredibly insulting,” Duckworth said.
She said that until there are AAPI nominees to vacant positions — such as OMB, or the Federal Communications Commission — or a commitment to future Cabinet secretaries, she’s a no vote.
“Until then, I am a no vote on the floor on all non-diversity nominees,” she said, including sub-Cabinet choices and judicial nominees. She said she would support racial minorities and LGBTQ nominees.
After informing the White House, Duckworth said: “They will get back to me.”
Duckworth isn’t the only Democratic senator upset with the administration over the lack of diversity and speaking out about it publicly.
At the same retreat on Monday, Hirono criticized the White House for a lack of Asian American representation in the Biden Cabinet, adding that she wasn’t satisfied with Dillon’s response.
“What I said was, I shared the position that AAPI community has that there hasn’t been a significant number of AAPIs at the Cabinet level,” Hirono said. “I realize that we have Katherine Tai, but I don’t think the trade representative is what the community understands as a Cabinet level.”
She also said she had raised concerns that the White House was sharing polling about the views of voters on Biden and his agenda but that polling did not adequately represent the views of the community.
“I also pointed out that one of the concerns I have whenever there’s polling done about the position of various groups, I would like to see in a consistent way, the AAPI community being polled,” said Hirono, who’s a Japanese American. “And I made that point last night.”
Hirono added, “It’s everybody’s issue. … And when they’re presented with polls, I’d like to see who’s being polled, who’s asked these questions. And my major point was that the AAPI community should be asked.”
Asked if White House officials acknowledged they would change anything, Hirono said: “What I heard was that they were actually included. I said, no, not in any consistent way. I told them. I gave them examples of why. And so to me the main point is if you consider this an important group of people, they should be consistently asked for their positions.”
And Hirono was blunt when asked whether she was satisfied with the White House’s response.
“No,” she told CNN.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.