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Politics

Senators battle White House over lack of Asian cabinet members

Duckworth and Hirono call for greater representation amid spate of hate crimes

Sen. Tammy Duckworth has advocated for greater Asian American and Pacific Islander representation at the top levels of government.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- The White House has avoided a potential rift in the Senate after two Democrats clashed with the Biden administration over a lack of Asian American representation among cabinet secretaries, exposing the party's tenuous grip on power in an evenly divided chamber.

The administration was caught off guard after Sen. Tammy Duckworth, of Illinois, and Sen. Mazie Hirono, of Hawaii, said they would not vote for non-diverse nominees from the White House until the Biden administration addressed the lack of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in his cabinet.

The duo later backed off the threats Tuesday after the White House pledged to add a senior level Asian American Pacific Islander liaison.

"The president has made it clear that his administration will reflect the diversity of the country," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

Democrats and Republicans both have 50 seats in the Senate, meaning that losing a single Democratic vote could hamper White House nominations.

Duckworth, who is Thai American, and Hirono, who is Japanese American, are the only two Asian Americans currently in the Senate.

Duckworth told reporters Tuesday that when she expressed her frustration over the lack of Asian American representation in a call with the White House, a key adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden said Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was from India, and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai were Asian American.

Tai, who is of Chinese descent, technically holds a cabinet-level position, but does not carry the title of secretary or lead an executive department.

Duckworth said the comment was "insulting."

"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?" she said.

Her ultimatum came amid a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans across the U.S., such as the deadly shooting rampage in Atlanta last week. Duckworth and Hirono likely hoped to encourage the Biden administration to increase Asian American representation at the very top levels of government, partly as a way to combat the rise in racism against the group.

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