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Democratic senators drop ultimatum to White House over Asian American representation

Senator Duckworth speaks out on anti-Asian bias
"I still get asked, 'Where are you from?'" Senator Tammy Duckworth speaks out against recent spike in anti-Asian rhetoric and violence 10:38

Washington — Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth late Tuesday dropped a stern ultimatum she had made in the morning to White House senior officials: She no longer will withhold votes to confirm White nominees until Asian Americans are named to more high level positions in the Biden administration.

The reversal followed multiple conversations with White House officials and pledges from President Biden to promote diversity.

"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's communications director Ben Garmisa said in a statement Tuesday night.

"Accordingly, she will not stand in the way of President Biden's qualified nominees — which will include more AAPI leaders," he added.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday night in a statement, "The President has made it clear that his Administration will reflect the diversity of the country. That has always been, and remains our goal. 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."  

Earlier, Duckworth told CBS News, "I'm voting no on all non-diversity nominees until they figure that out."

"We don't have anybody either (at a senior level) in the West Wing or in a cabinet-level position, and I don't think that's a good message to send to a significant portion of our nation's population — a population that's really hurting right now after a year of being under attack," she said.

Duckworth said she discussed her position with White House senior adviser Steve Ricchetti in a phone call Tuesday morning, and that he "told me that they were committed to figuring it out and that they would get back in touch with me."

Duckworth's threat had teeth. In a 50-50 Senate where every Democratic vote counts, the White House may not be able to get some of its nominees confirmed if she votes no. Duckworth said she did not want to "pit minority against minority," which is why she chose to apply her ultimatum only to "non-diversity nominees."

With all but one of Mr. Biden's Cabinet-level nominees already confirmed, his is on track to be the first cabinet in 20 years without an Asian American cabinet secretary. Neera Tanden — who is the daughter of Indian immigrants — had been nominated to serve in a Cabinet-level post as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but withdrew her nomination last month due to opposition from at least one Democratic senator, West Virginia's Joe Manchin. Shalanda Young, who is African American, was confirmed Tuesday as deputy OMB director and is considered a major contender to take the top slot.

"Well, look, I would like to know what the White House's intentions are with regard to that position," Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono told CBS News. Hirono and Duckworth both pressed White House deputy chief of staff Jen O'Malley Dillon on the issue during a during a Zoom call between the White House and the Senate Democratic Caucus.

"I shared that concern that I would have liked to see an AAPI (Asian American or Pacific Islander) secretary besides Katherine Tai," Hirono said, referring to the newly installed U.S. Trade Representative, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate last week. "Nothing against her, she's a fantastic person, but not very many people know that the Trade Rep is a cabinet-level position."

Late Tuesday, Hirono also announced that she would no longer vote no against Mr. Biden's nominees. 

"I welcome the appointment of a senior level White House liaison to the AAPI community to further strengthen our voice," Hirono tweeted. "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," she added.

Hirono told reporters earlier on Tuesday that she would join Duckworth in opposing Mr. Biden's picks until they have a commitment on Asian-American nominees.

"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," she said.

Duckworth, who is the first Thai American elected to Congress, said she grew "emotional" and "teary" while discussing the issue with O'Malley Dillon and fellow senators. "It's representation! We have to have diversity at the highest levels of government. When we have an issue like what happened in Atlanta, we have to have someone there who understands the challenges that that particular community is going through."  

Mr. Biden traveled to Atlanta last week after a mass shooting that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent. He highlighted the "skyrocketing spike" of threats against Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic: "It's been a year of living in fear for their lives." A report by the group Stop AAPI Hate found Asian Americans faced 3,800 hate incidents in the past year.

Monday was the first day of work for the new White House liaison to the AAPI community, Howard Ou. But his is a relatively low-level position, without a direct line to the president, and there are no senior White House advisers of Asian American or Pacific Islander descent. Mr. Biden has said he is committed to finding a top position for Tanden that does not require Senate confirmation. Former Ambassador Susan Rice and senior adviser Cedric Richmond, both of whom are African American, are leading the effort to engage with Asian-American leaders and advocacy groups on the issue of hate crimes against the community. 

Duckworth said she has been providing the Biden campaign team, transition team and White House with lists of Asian Americans who would be highly qualified for various positions for the past six months. When those candidates were passed over for top positions, she said, she was told to take heart in the fact that the nation's first South Asian vice president now works in the West Wing.

But the Illinois senator said that sentiment only made matters worse. "To be told that, 'Well, you have Kamala Harris — we're very proud of her; you don't need anybody else' is insulting."

When asked what the White House needs to do to get her to drop her ultimatum — given that the Cabinet is already all but filled — Duckworth replied, "Well they're going to have to figure that out. But they can certainly make commitments for future cabinet positions. There's not even someone in the West Wing at this point that's a senior enough staffer. So there's a lot they can do."

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