Duckworth, Hirono vow to oppose Biden picks over diversity concerns
Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) say they will vote against President Biden’s nominees amid frustration over the lack of Asian American and Pacific Islander representation and broader concerns about diversity in his Cabinet.
While most of Biden’s core Cabinet picks have already been confirmed, the opposition could be a significant hurdle to getting additional executive or judicial branch nominations through the 50-50 Senate, where the support of every Democrat is needed if Republicans line up against a nominee.
Duckworth first told reporters on Tuesday that she had informed the White House she would oppose any “non-diversity” nominees until she gets a commitment from the executive branch for more high-ranking Asian American nominations.
“I am a ‘no’ vote, on the floor, on all non-diversity nominees. … I will vote for racial minorities and LGBTQ but anybody else, I’m not voting for,” said Duckworth, who is one of two Asian American senators.
Duckworth pointed to the top Office of Management and Budget (OMB) role, which doesn’t have a nominee after the White House pulled Neera Tanden’s nomination, as well as the head of the Federal Communications Commission as positions where she is focused on lobbying the administration.
The Illinois Democrat said the White House could also “make a commitment for a future Cabinet secretary, an actual Cabinet secretary.”
Hirono told reporters late Tuesday afternoon that she was joining Duckworth in pushing for greater diversity at the Cabinet level, but said she was not specifically focused on seeking an Asian American or Pacific Islander nominee.
“We would like to have a commitment from the White House that there be more diversity representation in the Cabinet and in senior White House positions and until that happens I will be joining her in voting on non-diversity nominees,” Hirono said, calling their request a “reasonable position.”
“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. I’d just like to see more diversity representation,” she said, using an acronym referring to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
In a 50-50 Senate, opposition from the two Democratic senators could be a significant stumbling block to getting Biden’s nominees through the chamber if Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is able to rally his caucus against them.
Without GOP support, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) would need the support of every member of his caucus and Vice President Harris to get picks confirmed.
“Every vote counts. We’ve very serious about this because Joe Biden made a commitment to have as diverse a Cabinet and as diverse a White House. He made that commitment and that is what we’re calling for,” Hirono said when asked about the significance of their decision.
Hirono, who was born in Japan, and Duckworth, who was born in Thailand, are the Senate’s only two currently serving Asian American senators.
Biden defended his Cabinet picks on Tuesday night, telling reporters that he has “the most diverse Cabinet in history.”
“We have a lot of Asian Americans that are in the Cabinet and in sub-Cabinet levels,” he added.
Senators say they’ve been having discussions with the White House for months about the need for more diversity but those frustrations bubbled over during a meeting with White House staff as part of the Senate Democrats’ retreat on Monday night.
“When I asked about AAPI representation … the first words out of the staff’s mouth was ‘well, we’re very proud of Vice President Harris’ which is incredibly insulting. That’s not the first time I’ve heard that,” Duckworth said about the call.
Duckworth confirmed that deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon was the staffer on the call.
Hirono said she also raised concerns about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders not being included in some of the polling data shown to senators on Monday night by White House staff.
“I said for one of the charts you showed us showed different groups’ attitudes toward Joe Biden. AAPIs were not included but they had eight other categories,” she said.
Hirono added that she shared Duckworth’s “concern and disappointment, along with AAPI advocacy groups, that there should be more AAPI.”
Asian American and Pacific Islander groups have been calling for months for more representation at the Cabinet level, with the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies noting in January that Biden would be the first president in 20 years not to have a Cabinet secretary who is a member of either community.
Duckworth said she had been making suggestions to the White House for well-qualified nominees who were Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders “who never even got a phone call.”
“At this point they can call me and tell me what their proposal is,” she said of the administration.
Biden had nominated Tanden to be the director of OMB. If confirmed she would have been the first South Asian American woman to be confirmed to the position, but her nomination was pulled when it became clear she did not have the votes.
The Senate has also confirmed Katherine Tai to be the U.S. trade representative.
Democrats’ frustrations about a lack of diversity comes as hate crimes targeting the Asian community have increased during the coronavirus pandemic. Just last week, eight people, six of them Asian women, were killed during a shooting spree in Atlanta.
Biden spoke with senators as part of the call this week, with Duckworth describing him as “caring,” “thoughtful” and “humane” about the increase in violence facing the community.