The decision came after Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) vowed Tuesday afternoon to vote no on Biden’s “non-diversity” Cabinet nominees until the White House addressed the issue. Lawmakers have been pushing Biden for months for greater AAPI representation in the most senior levels of his administration.
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about who might fill the role or whether it was a new position. The White House has for several years had a liaison to the AAPI community.
All 15 of Biden’s Cabinet secretary slots have been filled, and there are no Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders among them, the first time in more than 20 years a president’s Cabinet has not included at least one AAPI secretary.
Duckworth said that during the past six months she has repeatedly offered the White House the names of “many well-qualified AAPIs” for Cabinet positions, but those individuals “never even got a phone call,” she said.
“At this point … they can call me and tell me what the proposal is,” Duckworth said of the White House. “But until then, I am 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.”
Hirono later told reporters she spoke with the White House on Monday night and was joining Duckworth in her push for AAPI representation in Biden’s Cabinet.
“I talked with Tammy about her clarified position, and I’m joining her in there, which means that we would like to have a commitment from the White House that there’ll be more diversity representation in the Cabinet, and in senior White House positions,” Hirono told reporters Tuesday. “And until that happens, I will be able to join her in voting no on non-diversity nominees. I think that is a reasonable position.”
Biden had nominated Neera Tanden, whose parents immigrated from India, to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget, but Tanden later withdrew her nomination after it became clear she would not have the votes to be confirmed. Katherine Tai, who was sworn in last week as the U.S. trade representative, is of Asian descent, but her position is not a secretary-level one in the Cabinet.
Late Tuesday, Hirono said she had had a “productive conversation” with Biden officials “to make clear my perspective about the importance of diversity in the President’s Cabinet.”
Both she and Duckworth announced they were backing down from their ultimatums after the White House agreed to appoint an AAPI liaison.
“Senator Duckworth appreciates 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 White House official to represent the community, secure the confirmation of AAPI appointments and advance policy proposals that are relevant and important to the community,” Duckworth spokesman Ben Garmisa said in a statement.
Before the White House’s decision, Biden was asked about Duckworth’s and Hirono’s comments in a brief exchange with reporters before he left Ohio to return to Washington on Tuesday night. The president was in Ohio as part of a push to highlight his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, and he marked the 11th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act.
“We have the most diverse Cabinet in history,” Biden said. “We have a lot of Asian Americans that are in the Cabinet and in sub-Cabinet levels.”
In December, weeks before Biden was sworn in as president, more than 100 members of Congress sent a letter to Biden’s transition team pressing for the nomination of an Asian American or Pacific Islander Cabinet secretary, saying that not doing so would be an unacceptable omission after each of the past four administrations included at least one.
“Although you promised to build the most diverse Cabinet in history, AAPIs have so far been excluded from the 15 Cabinet Secretary slots that oversee executive departments and are responsible for shaping and implementing your Administration’s policies,” the lawmakers stated in the joint letter. Duckworth and Hirono were among the signatories.
In her remarks to reporters Tuesday, Duckworth said that when she has raised the issue with the White House, she has been told multiple times that Biden’s selection of Kamala D. Harris, who is Black and Asian American, as vice president is sufficient.
“To be told that, ‘Well, you have Kamala D. Harris. We’re very proud of her. You don’t need anybody else,’ is insulting,” Duckworth said. “Last night, that was the trigger for me. But multiple times I’ve heard that.”
“And 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,’” Duckworth added. “Why would you say it to AAPI?”