- Sens. Mazie Hirono and Tammy Duckworth successfully lobbied the White House for increased AAPI representation.
- The pair threatened to withhold votes in support of Cabinet nominees unless Biden made changes.
- The White House said it would add a senior-level AAPI liaison.
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The Biden administration says it will appoint an Asian American Pacific Islander liaison after Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Mazie Hirono decried the lack of AAPI representation at the highest levels of government and threatened to block future administration nominees unless Biden pledged more representation.
Duckworth, of Illinois, and Hirono, of Hawaii, are the only two AAPI members of the Senate and had been raising the issue of representation for months but had been met with little support, according to The New York Times,
During a tense call on Monday night with the White House, Duckworth was told by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon that Vice President Kamala Harris was proof enough of high-level AAPI representation, according to CNN.
Duckworth called Dillon’s comments “insulting.”
“To be told that you have Kamala Harris, we are very proud of her, you don’t need anybody else, is insulting,” Duckworth told reporters following the meeting. “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 added that until the White House “can call me and tell me what the proposal is,” she would be a “no vote on the floor, on all non-diversity nominees.”
Hirono echoed Duckworth’s sentiments.
“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. “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.”
The Asian Pacific American Caucus had previously applauded the confirmation of Dr. Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General and Katherine Tai as US Trade Representative, but Hirono and Duckworth questioned why there are no AAPI members in top leadership roles in Biden’s Cabinet.
With the Senate currently split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, Duckworth and Hirono’s support for Biden nominations is crucial.
On Tuesday, the White House spoke privately with Hirono and Duckworth. Following the conversation, both women reversed course.
Ben Garmisa, a spokesperson for Duckworth, said the senator appreciated “assurances” that the Biden administration would “do more to elevate AAPI voices and perspectives at the highest levels of government” and that Duckworth “will not stand in the way of President Biden’s qualified nominees – which will include more AAPI leaders.”
Hirono said on Twitter that after a “productive” and “private” conversation with the White House, she would “continue voting to confirm the historic and highly qualified nominees President Biden has appointed to serve in his administration.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement to the Times on Tuesday night that “the White House will add a senior-level Asian American Pacific Islander liaison, who will ensure the community’s voice is further represented and heard.”
“The president has made it clear that his administration will reflect the diversity of the country. That has always been, and remains, our goal,” she continued.
The White House’s announcement comes amid a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes in the US believed to be related to unfounded COVID-19 conspiracies. Last year, Hirono, along with several other AAPI members of Congress, introduced the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act which would allocate Department of Justice resources toward reviewing hate crimes.