Ahuja’s nomination would normally have received a quick confirmation vote common for candidates for relatively low-profile posts. But Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) objected to an up-or-down vote this past spring, forcing Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to go through procedural hurdles in the Senate.
When Biden nominated her in February to lead an agency little known outside of Washington, Ahuja’s confirmation seemed likely. Ahuja, a 49-year-old attorney and daughter of immigrants from India, served as the OPM’s chief of staff during the Obama administration and led a network of philanthropy organizations in the Pacific Northwest.
Ahuja pledged at her confirmation hearing to rebuild a federal civil service battered during the Trump administration by budget cuts and disdain from many political appointees as a “deep state” of bureaucrats that led to widespread retirements.
But once they started looking into her past, Hawley and other Republicans on the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee focused on two matters critical to the party as it prepares a midterm campaign on culture issues. Hawley, the first-term senator at the center of the movement to discredit Biden’s election, was at the forefront, joining a party that has targeted critical race theory as divisive and false, and moved to ban its teaching in schools through measures in GOP-led state legislatures.
Republicans also pushed back on Ahuja’s support for abortion rights at a time when a long-standing ban on federal funding for the procedure — known as the Hyde Amendment — has emerged as a renewed flash point for the right because of Biden’s support for overturning it.
But it was critical race theory that moved center stage as Hawley targeted Ahuja’s leadership of Philanthropy Northwest, the umbrella group connecting charities in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. The senator focused on her support for Ibram X. Kendi, a professor at Boston University whose writings about racial equity have come under fire from conservatives — and said he worried that Ahuja would weave the language of critical race theory into federal directives.
Critical race theory is an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism.
“I’m worried that President Biden is nominating to federal office individuals who do not believe the history of this nation is worth celebrating,” Hawley said on the Senate floor before Tuesday’s vote. “I’m concerned Ms. Ahuja is a disciple of radical critical theorists.”
“She wrote that we must free the nation from the daily trials of white supremacy,” Hawley continued. “Critical theory . . . appears to have become the animating ideology of this administration, and that is cause for great concern.”
Hawley described an ideology “that says the United States is rotten to its core. That says our society is defined by white supremacy. That thinks that all Americans are either oppressors or oppressed.” He called diversity training for federal employees — banished by the Trump administration, then reinstated by Biden — deeply divisive and said it was dividing federal employees along racial lines.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, then rose to support Ahuja’s nomination, describing an agency and a workforce that faced “unprecedented challenges in recent years” from a government shutdown, a pandemic and a Trump administration-led campaign to dismantle it.
“These issues were made worse by a lack of consistent leadership at OPM,” Peters said. Ahuja’s two decades of management experience, including leading initiatives on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for the Obama White House, “demonstrated she understands the mission of OPM and importance of safeguarding the nonpartisan civil service.”
Chris Meagher, a deputy White House press secretary, said in an email, “Kiran Ahuja is a qualified, experienced, and dedicated public servant who we are looking forward to leading the Office of Personnel Management in its work protecting the safety of the workforce, empowering federal employees, and building a federal workforce that looks like America.”
Harris in April broke a tie on a vote that advanced Colin Kahl, a top Pentagon official, onto the Senate floor, but she was not needed for his later confirmation vote.
Other controversial nominees, such as Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, were confirmed on narrow party-line votes.
In addition to the procedural vote for Kahl, Harris has voted three other times in the Senate this year to break a tie, all related to the Biden administration’s sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.
The delay in confirming Ahuja dealt another setback to Biden’s pledge to rebuild the federal government after the tumultuous Trump years, which left many departments in the government short-staffed.
With no nominee to head the White House Office of Management and Budget after Neera Tanden withdrew this spring, the key agency that partners with the OPM to manage the vast government and its 2.1 million career employees is without permanent leadership six months into the administration.