WASHINGTON – Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., told reporters Tuesday she would not support any more of President Joe Biden’s non-diversity nominees until he appoints more Asian-Americans to his Cabinet.
Biden’s Cabinet — which is shaping up to be the most diverse in U.S. history – does not include a single 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 told reporters that when she has brought up this issue in the past – and most recently last night – White House officials respond 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.
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Duckworth, who was born in Thailand, said the notion the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) 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 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 elaborated the proposal from the White House could be 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.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, is backing Duckworth.
“Tammy’s position is that until she gets a commitment from the White House that there will be more diversity representation in the Cabinet and senior White House advisory positions, she will not vote to confirm anyone who does not represent diversity,” Hirono told MSNBC Tuesday afternoon. “This is not about pitting one diversity group against another. I think this is a well-articulated, focused position. I am prepared to join her in that.”
Hirono, who was born in Japan, and Duckworth are the only two senators of Asian descent.
The White House did not immediately respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment.
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 come 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 position shows how fragile Biden’s task is to win approval for nominees and key legislation in a chamber that’s evenly divided 50-50.
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 could be scuttled by opposition from Duckworth. But one might be 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