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Duckworth Backs Off Vow To Block Biden Nominees Over Lack Of AAPI Cabinet Members

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., seen here at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 13, had said she would vote no on President Biden's nominees until he commits to making more appointments of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Stefani Reynolds
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., seen here at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 13, had said she would vote no on President Biden's nominees until he commits to making more appointments of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Updated March 24, 2021 at 8:36 AM ET

Sen. Tammy Duckworth and the White House broke an impasse over the Illinois Democrat's pledge to block President Biden's nominees who aren't diverse candidates as a protest over a lack of Asian American representation in the new administration.

Under their deal announced late Tuesday, the White House will add a senior liaison to the community and, in exchange, Duckworth will support Biden's nominees.

"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," Ben Gash Garmisa, a Duckworth spokesman, said in a statement. "Accordingly, she will not stand in the way of President Biden's qualified nominees—which will include more AAPI leaders."

The about-face came after Duckworth and fellow Democrat Mazie Hirono of Hawaii pledged to vote no on any White House nominees who aren't diverse candidates. Hirono said late Tuesday she too changed her position.

"There's no AAPI representation in the Cabinet," Duckworth told Capitol Hill reporters Tuesday afternoon. "There's not a single AAPI in a Cabinet position. That's unacceptable."

Duckworth, who is Thai American, said she had been talking to the White House for months over concerns about the lack of representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, even giving the White House names of "well-qualified AAPI" candidates "who never even got a phone call."

Biden pledged to build the most diverse Cabinet in history, and about halfof his Cabinet picks have been nonwhite. Speaking about Duckworth's decision on Tuesday, Biden said: "We have the most diverse Cabinet in history. We have a lot of Asian Americans that are in the Cabinet and in sub-Cabinet levels."

There are no Asian Americans in Biden's Cabinet and just a handful in top positions like U.S. trade representative (a Cabinet-level position but not a Cabinet member) and surgeon general.

In a statement late Tuesday, Jen Psaki, Biden's spokeswoman, said: "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."

Duckworth said her frustration hit a breaking point after a call Monday evening with Biden aides during which she said White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O'Malley Dillon pointed to Vice President Harris' South Asian heritage.

"Last night, that was the trigger for me," Duckworth said. "To be told that 'well, you have Kamala Harris, we're very proud of her, you don't need anybody else' is insulting." Duckworth noted she has heard that sentiment from the administration "multiple times."

"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.' Why would you say it to AAPI?"

After the call, she says she notified the administration of her decision to cast "no" votes "until they figure this out." She told reporters she planned to still vote for racial minorities and LGBTQ nominees.

Duckworth added that Biden had left the call before the comment was made and that he had been "caring and thoughtful and humane when he talked about what AAPIs have been going through."

Hirono echoed Duckworth's comments, telling reporters she planned on joining Duckworth in voting no on non-diverse nominees until the White House committed that there would be "more diversity representation in the Cabinet and in senior White House positions."

Hirono added she wasn't solely calling for more AAPI representation.

"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."

In a tweet late Tuesday, Hirono announced her change in position. She later issued a statement, saying: "I had a productive conversation with the White House today to make clear my perspective about the importance of diversity in the President's Cabinet. Based on the private conversation we had, I will continue voting to confirm the historic and highly qualified nominees President Biden has appointed to serve in his administration."

Asian American leaders have called on the Biden administration to take concrete steps to protect the AAPI community following increased violence in the last year, including the recent shootings in the Atlanta area that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent.

When asked on Tuesday what appointments the Biden administration could practically make at this point in time, Duckworth mentioned the Federal Communications Commission and the Office of Management and Budget and suggested the administration could make a commitment for a future Cabinet secretary position.

Had Neera Tanden, Biden's original pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, been confirmed, she would have been the first South Asian American woman to serve in the position. Tanden withdrew her nomination in early March after multiple key senators said they wouldn't support her.

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Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.