The delay on Ahuja’s nomination is being led by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), although several Republicans objected to a quick confirmation vote for her, according to senior Democratic and GOP officials. The move will force Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to go through procedural hurdles on the Senate floor, rather than move quickly with a pro forma vote that is more common for nominees to lower-profile posts.
Ahuja’s candidacy to lead the Office of Personnel Management, which cleared a key committee nearly two months ago, is now in a long queue of Biden nominees pending in the Senate. She probably will be confirmed in the evenly divided Senate unless a Democrat defects and all Republicans oppose her, but it’s unclear whether a vote will be scheduled on the crowded docket before senators leave for their next recess at the end of June.
The delay deals 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 and no one confirmed to lead the General Services Administration, which handles federal procurement and real estate, the three agencies in charge of overall management of the vast government and its 2.1 million career employees are without permanent leadership six months into the administration.
“OPM plays a key role in carrying out President Biden’s efforts to rebuild and revitalize our federal workforce, which includes many of my constituents,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D), whose Maryland district includes tens of thousands of federal employees, said in an email. “It’s crucial that the Senate move quickly to confirm her.”
The White House has pressed Schumer to bring the nomination to a quick vote, but Ahuja is competing for a spot on a heavy Senate calendar.
“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,” Chris Meagher, a deputy White House press secretary, wrote in an email.
Ahuja did not return an email seeking comment. Her husband, Javier Guzman, the deputy general counsel for Harvard University, is Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Justice’s civil division.
Ahuja, a 49-year-old attorney and daughter of immigrants from India who served at the personnel department in the Obama administration and then was chief executive of a network of philanthropy organizations in the Pacific Northwest, does not appear at first to be a controversial choice to become the government’s chief human resources officer.
But her nomination touched on two matters critical to Republicans as they prepare a midterm campaign on culture issues, with Hawley — the freshman senator at the center of the movement to discredit Biden’s election — at the forefront. The obscure personnel agency is suddenly at the center of a political war over Biden’s whole-of-government approach to promoting racial equity and reproductive rights.
The administration in March restored diversity and inclusion training for federal employees that the Trump administration had all but eliminated by requiring agencies to submit materials to the White House for approval. The Office of Personnel Management also has a role in that, as well as in carrying out abortion policy since it runs the largest employer-sponsored health insurance program in the country, with 4 million enrollees and an equal number of covered family members.
“Senator Hawley has a hold on Kiran Ahuja’s nomination because of her history promoting radical critical race theorists,” Hawley spokeswoman Kelli Ford said in an email. “These associations merit real scrutiny, especially in light of Ms. Ahuja’s nomination to a role that would allow her to reinstate race-based training sessions throughout the entire federal government.
“Democrats sought to fast-track a vote, but Senator Hawley believes adequate debate time and full Senate consideration is needed for this nominee,” Ford wrote. The senator is expected to speak against Ahuja’s appointment on the Senate floor.
Republicans have targeted critical race theory as divisive and false, and have moved to ban its teaching in schools through measures in GOP-led state legislatures. In a speech last week to a Republican group in New Hampshire, former vice president Mike Pence, like Hawley a potential candidate for president in 2024, called systemic racism a “left-wing myth” and said critical race theory is teaching young children to “be ashamed of their skin color.”
Hawley has targeted Ahuja’s leadership of Philanthropy Northwest, the umbrella group connecting charities in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.
Her confirmation hearing, paired with vetting of three nominees to the board of the U.S. Postal Service, drew little public attention. But Hawley told Ahuja he worried she would weave the language of critical race theory into federal directives.
Hawley focused on Ahuja’s support for Ibram X. Kendi, a professor at Boston University whose writings about racial equity have come under fire from conservatives. Kendi gave a lecture on “antiracism” as part of Philanthropy Northwest’s Equity Speaker Series in 2018, highlighting concepts concluding that racist policy is any policy that yields a racially unequal outcome, regardless of intention, and that race-neutral policies do not exist, according to the group’s website.
In a blog post last year, Ahuja linked to an article by Kendi that claimed Donald Trump’s election was an example of white supremacy. Her blog post also spoke of freeing Black, indigenous, gay and transgender Americans from the “daily trials of White supremacy.”
“Do you agree that the election of Donald Trump was an example of ‘racist progress’ in this country?” the senator asked the nominee.
“No, I can’t speak to that particular position that Dr. Kendi has made,” she responded. She said she did not recall the article he was referring to and said, “I would not make those type of statements, no.” But she said Kendi has advised charities, including Philanthropy Northwest, on how to advance “greater equity.”
“Do you think the United States is a systemically racist country?” Hawley continued.
“I’m a big believer that we seek to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity,” Ahuja replied. “I understand and appreciate the historical challenges many individuals have experienced, based on their race and ethnicity.”
Other senators have sought assurances that she would follow the Hyde Amendment, assuming it was still federal law. Before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved her nomination in April, Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), the committee’s ranking Republican was one of several Republicans to cite critical race theory and Ahuja’s support for abortion rights as reasons for his “no” vote.
Ahuja said during her hearing that “The Hyde Amendment is the law of the land, and I will follow the law.”
In his fiscal 2022 budget request, released late last month, Biden omitted the Hyde Amendment language, thus attempting to void a decades-old ban on federal funding for abortions that he long supported before reversing his stance during the presidential campaign.
In June 2019, Biden declared he would no longer support limits on funding for abortions, citing an environment in which the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide is under attack in Republican-majority states. “Circumstances have changed,” he said.
For years, candidates nominated to lead the personnel agency had a long run of quick confirmations by voice vote.
But two of the past four nominees faced pushback from the party out of power in the White House. Senate Republicans objected to Obama nominee Katherine Archuleta in a proxy fight over the Affordable Care Act. Trump nominee Dale Cabaniss faced questions from Democrats based on her previous run-ins with unions representing federal employees. Both were ultimately approved with bipartisan support.
Even as Republicans have targeted Ahuja’s appointment over critical race theory, it’s unclear what role the premise would play in diversity, equity and inclusion training for federal employees. As personnel director, she probably would oversee the curriculum, although it would vary by agency.
“There’s probably certain elements that are there,” said John Fuller, a longtime federal government diversity executive who is now senior project manager for workforce recruitment at the Defense Department, which has embarked on a widespread assessment of the agency’s civilian internship programs for recent college graduates and whether they promote equity or systemic barriers.
“You’re assuming there is systemic discrimination versus assuming that if discrimination exists, let’s rid the government of it,” Fuller said.
He called the emphasis “an evolving process” that the new personnel agency leader would have a role in shaping.
Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, said the lack of a federal personnel director is already “slowing things down,” particularly as other key agencies tasked with coordination of the government’s workings have no confirmed leaders. He ticked off a list of Biden priorities that are behind schedule, from changing the slow federal hiring process to recruiting a diverse workforce.
“You have four years,” Stier said, “and we’re losing a big chunk of time.”
Eric Yoder contributed to this story.