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Duckworth backs off vow to block Biden nominees

Laura Litvan
Bloomberg
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Two Democratic senators backed off a threat to vote against all of Joe Biden nominees who are White and heterosexual after they received assurances that his administration would bolster its efforts to select Asian-American or Pacific Islander candidates.

Tammy Duckworth of Illinois was joined in the initial pledge by Senator Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat. The loss of their votes could jeopardize the confirmation of Biden nominees in an evenly divided Senate.

In this image from video, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., speaks as the Senate reconvenes after protesters stormed into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.

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But Duckworth’s office said in a statement released late Tuesday night that she “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. ”

“Accordingly,” her office added, “she will not stand in the way of President Biden’s qualified nominees which will include more AAPI leaders.”

Hirono said in a statement late Tuesday night that she had spoken with the White House “to make clear my perspective about the importance of diversity in the president’s cabinet.”

“Based on the private conversation we had,” she said, “I will continue voting to confirm the historic and highly qualified nominees President Biden has appointed to serve in his administration.”

Duckworth had said her decision to not vote for some nominees came after she had raised concerns about a lack of AAPI representation among Biden nominees in a call with Senate Democrats and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon. She said O’Malley Dillon responded that the administration is proud of Vice President Kamala Harris, who is of Indian heritage, and Duckworth said that was “incredibly insulting” to suggest that is sufficient.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment about O’Malley Dillon’s remarks.

An Iraq war veteran who was born in Thailand, Duckworth said she has been working with the administration to pick more Asian-Americans for executive branch posts.

Hirono said earlier Tuesday that she was “joining Tammy in her articulated position that we’d like to see the White House make a commitment to more diversity, representation in the cabinet as well as senior White House positions.”

Asked about Duckworth and Hirono’s statements, Biden told reporters traveling with him to an event in Ohio that “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.”

Duckworth and Hirono’s votes are pivotal in the 50-50 Senate if Republicans are united in opposition to any of Biden’s nominees.

Duckworth described Biden as “caring and thoughtful and humane” in discussing discrimination against people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent in the wake of last week’s shootings in Atlanta in which six Asian women were killed. But she said the conversation with his staff “was the trigger for me.”

Several of Biden’s cabinet nominations have been ground-breaking, including LLoyd Austin as the first Black Defense secretary and Pete Buttigieg, chosen to lead the Transportation Department, as the first openly gay cabinet member. Deb Haaland, now the Interior secretary, is the the first Native American to serve in a U.S. cabinet. And Harris is the first Black woman and person of Indian descent to be vice president.

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