On Tuesday, Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth issued an ultimatum to a White House that has been criticized for its lack of Asian American representation at the cabinet level. “I’m voting no on all non-diversity nominees until they figure that out,” she told CBS News, vowing to vote against President Biden’s cabinet picks in the Senate confirmation process until Biden appoints an Asian American to a “senior level” position “in the West Wing or in a cabinet-level position.”
Duckworth’s plan came after a Monday evening call between Senate Democrats and the president’s aides, in which she asked about the lack of Asian American representation in the Biden administration. According to the senator, White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon referenced Vice-President Kamala Harris’s South Asian American heritage, something she considered to be a deflection tactic. “To be told that, ‘Well, you have Kamala Harris — we’re very proud of her; you don’t need anybody else’ is insulting.”
The vow to vote no came a week after six Asian women were killed in an attack on three spas in the Atlanta area, after which law-enforcement officials faced significant pushback for their reluctance to call the shootings a hate crime. The Monday night call was a “trigger” for Duckworth — the second-ever Asian woman to be elected to the Senate — to act. “I don’t think that’s a good message to send to a significant portion of our nation’s population,” she said, “a population that’s really hurting right now after a year of being under attack.”
While members of the Asian Pacific American Caucus of lawmakers pushed earlier this year for Vivek Murthy and Julie Su to be appointed Cabinet secretaries, they ultimately received the positions of surgeon general and deputy labor secretary; Neera Tanden, whose parents are Indian immigrants, was nominated to direct the Office of Management and Budget before she asked to be withdrawn after Democrat Joe Manchin said he would not vote for her, citing her “overtly partisan statements” in the past. While none of Biden’s Cabinet secretaries are of Asian American descent, Politico notes that “U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai is of Chinese American descent and technically occupies a Cabinet-level position.”
Duckworth’s ultimatum could have shifted the math for the Biden White House, which has yet to use Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote in the cabinet-nomination process in the Senate — although there is just one open cabinet seat remaining, for presidential science adviser Eric Lander. (There are less senior nominees that still need Senate approval though, including the embattled Colin Kahl for undersecretary of Defense for policy.) She also gained a blocking vote among Democrats, when Hawaii senator Mazie Hirono — the first Asian woman to be elected to the Senate — said that she is “prepared to join” Duckworth’s effort.
Ultimately, the effort proved successful without putting it to the test: On Tuesday night, CBS News reported that Duckworth has “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 WH official to represent the community.” The agreement was consistent with Duckworth’s comments from earlier in the day, when she said that the White House “can certainly make commitments for future cabinet positions.”