Sen. Tammy Duckworth is pressuring President Joe Biden to step up Asian American and Pacific Islander representation in top positions of the administration, saying Tuesday that she will not vote for any future nominees who are white and straight until the situation is addressed to her satisfaction.
“I am 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,” she told reporters.
“I am not going to be voting for any nominee from the White House, other than diversity nominees, probably a no on everyone until they figure this out,” said Duckworth, one of only two Asian Americans in the Senate.
Duckworth said she informed the White House of her decision Tuesday morning but said she has been advocating on the issue for months.
“Hopefully they figure it out, but I’m a no on everything other than the diversity candidates,” she said, citing her opposition to the nomination of Colin Kahl to be assistant secretary of Defense for policy.
Duckworth, who was born to a Thai mother of Chinese descent and an American father, was assistant secretary of Veteran Affairs from 2009 to 2011 in the Obama administration. Her name came up as a possible Biden administration nominee for Defense secretary and VA secretary.
With the Senate split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, even just one defector on the Democratic side can put nominations and legislation in jeopardy.
“In a 50-50 Senate, every senator has the power to complicate,” Majority Whip and fellow Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin said about Duckworth’s plan.
Duckworth has support for her move from Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, the other Asian American in the Senate. Hirono is Japanese American.
“I’m joining her in that, which 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, I will join her in voting no on non-diversity nominees,” said Hirono. “We’re not just calling for AAPIs. This is not about pitting one diversity group against another. So I’m happy to vote for a Hispanic, a Black person, an LGBTQ person, an AAPI person,” she said. “I’d just like to see more diversity represented.”
Hirono told CNN on Tuesday that she, too, was unsatisfied with the White House’s response to her inquiries about AAPI representation at Monday’s virtual Senate Democratic retreat.
“I realize that we have Katherine Tai, but I don’t think the trade representative is what the community understands as a Cabinet level,” Hirono said.
The Senate voted 98-0 to confirm Tai to be U.S trade representative, which is referred to as a Cabinet-level role. The post is not among the 15 department secretaries who make up the president’s Cabinet and is not in the presidential line of succession.
Of the 15 department secretaries, all of whom have been confirmed as of this week, eight are straight white men or women: Antony J. Blinken (State), Janet L. Yellen (Treasury), Merrick Garland (Justice), Tom Vilsack (Agriculture), Gina Raimondo (Commerce), Marty J. Walsh (Labor), Jennifer M. Granholm (Energy) and Denis McDonough (Veterans Affairs).
The other seven would meet Duckworth’s criteria for diversity, being either a racial minority or LGBTQ: Lloyd J. Austin III (Defense), Deb Haaland (Interior), Xavier Becerra (Health and Human Services), Marcia L. Fudge (Housing and Urban Development), Pete Buttigieg (Transportation), Miguel Cardona (Education) and Alejandro Mayorkas (Homeland Security).
At what is considered the Cabinet level on the White House website, there are seven people in their positions and one vacancy. Of those seven, five would meet Duckworth’s diversity criteria: Michael Regan (EPA), Tai (USTR), Linda Thomas-Greenfield (U.S. ambassador to the United Nations), Cecilia Rouse (chair of the Council of Economic Advisers) and Isabel Guzman (Small Business Administration.) The other two would not: Avril Haines (director of national intelligence) and Ron Klain (White House chief of staff). There is a vacancy at the Office of Management and Budget.
Duckworth said the White House has pointed to Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was an Indian immigrant and father is Black, as an example of high-ranking and extremely visible Asian American representation.
“To be told that, ‘Well, you have Kamala Harris, we’re very proud of her, you don’t need anybody else’ is insulting,” said Duckworth.
She said her frustration with the situation and White House response escalated during Monday night’s virtual retreat of the Senate Democratic caucus.
“Multiple times I’ve heard that. And 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?” she said.
Neera Tanden, who was born to immigrant parents from India, was Biden’s top pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, but she withdrew from consideration when key senators, including West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, voiced opposition to her nomination. Tanden’s detractors also zeroed in on colorful tweets disparaging some of the same senators she needed to court for votes, like Maine Republican Susan Collins.
Biden has not named a replacement for Tanden. On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Shalanda Young, a Black woman, as deputy OMB director.
The push for more diversity from Duckworth and Hirono comes as a yearlong surge of anti-Asian bigotry and violence crescendoed last week when a gunman killed eight people in small businesses owned by Asian Americans in the Atlanta area, including six women of Asian descent.
It also comes as Lina Khan, an antitrust scholar, has been nominated to be commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission. Her nomination received praise earlier this week from California Democratic Rep. Judy Chu, who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
“In addition to the skill she will bring to this position, I am also thrilled to see President Biden continue to deliver on his promise to build an executive branch that looks like our country,” Chu said in a statement. “That includes an historic commitment to diversity which ensures communities of color like Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have a strong voice in our federal government.”
Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz said all the parties are working toward a solution.
“I think it is objectively true that in terms of the top Cabinet positions, that the representation is not there. I think it’s also true that the White House wants to fix this,” Schatz said. “I’ve talked to both Mazie and Tammy about it, and we’ve talked to the White House, and I think there’s goodwill here. And so I think this is going to land in a good place.”
Jennifer Shutt, Lindsey McPherson and Jason Dick contributed to this report.