WASHINGTON (AP) — Two Democratic senators lashed out Tuesday at the lack of Asian American and Pacific Islander representation in President Joe Biden’s Cabinet and even vowed not to support nominations until the White House better promotes diversity — moves that could stymie their own party’s administration in filling key posts.
Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, one of only two senators of Asian American heritage, said she raised the issue with top Biden advisers on Tuesday and afterward called the situation “not acceptable.”
“I’ve been talking to them for months and they’re still not aggressive, so I’m not going to be voting for any nominee from the White House other than diversity nominees,” Duckworth told reporters. “I’ll be a no on everyone until they figure this out.”
That prompted Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, the only other senator of Asian American heritage, to say, “I’m joining her in that.” Hirono said they would like the White House to commit to a more diverse representation in the Cabinet and senior White House positions.
Katherine Tai, who is Taiwanese American, is in the Cabinet as Biden’s top trade envoy. Dr. Vivek Murthy, the son of Indian parents, was confirmed Tuesday as surgeon general, a sub-Cabinet position.
Biden defended the makeup of his Cabinet to reporters Tuesday evening, saying, “We have the most diverse Cabinet in history.” He added: “We have a lot of Asian Americans that are in the Cabinet and in sub-Cabinet levels.”
The threats to withhold support could nonetheless complicate matters for Biden as he moves forward with other high-level administration and judicial appointments that require confirmation in an evenly divided Senate where Vice President Kamala Harris holds a tie-breaking vote.
Asian American and Pacific Islander elected officials and activists are hoping that last week’s shootings at spas around Atlanta that killed eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, will prompt the community to demand greater representation in government.
“We’re not just calling for API’s. This is not about pitting one diversity group against them. So I’m happy to vote for a Hispanic or Black person and LGBTQ person and AAPI person,” Hiro said. “I just like to see more diversity representation.”
Duckworth is of Thai descent and was mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick for Biden before he settled on Harris, the first Black and Indian-American woman to hold the vice presidency. Duckworth, who had also been under consideration for a Cabinet role, noted that presidents over the last 20 years have included AAPI people in their Cabinets.
Hirono, who also spoke to senior Biden advisers, said she has expressed dismay about a lack of representation.
“I shared the frustration that the AAPI community has that there’s not been a significant number of AAPIs at the Cabinet level,” she told reporters. “I don’t think the trade representative is what the community understands (as) a Cabinet level.”
Tai, who was confirmed last week, is the first Asian American and first woman of color to serve as U.S. trade representative.
Biden also nominated Neera Tanden to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget, but she withdrew her nomination after it became clear she would have difficulty winning confirmation. Tanden faced opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, over insulting tweets aimed at Republican lawmakers that she posted prior to her nomination.
Duckworth said administration officials noted the selections of Tai and Tanden, who are both high-level picks but not part of the president’s Cabinet, when she raised her concerns.
That didn’t sit well with her.
“To be told that, well, you have Kamala Harris, we’re very proud of her, you don’t need anybody else, is insulting,” Duckworth said.