The Senate’s two Asian-American Democrats called on President Biden on Tuesday to address what they called an unacceptable dearth of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders serving in top posts in his administration, promising to withhold their votes for any nominee who is white or straight until he did so.
The ultimatum from Senators Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii came as Mr. Biden faced mounting pressure on the issue amid a rising tide of racism toward Asian-Americans during the pandemic, culminating in last week’s deadly shootings in Atlanta. With the Senate divided evenly between the two parties, the move threatened to derail Mr. Biden’s hopes of confirming several executive branch officials. It could also create considerable pressure to find a solution to a diversity problem the senators said they had been quietly raising for months.
The escalation came after the senators used a closed-door video meeting on Monday night to tell Mr. Biden’s top advisers, including the deputy chief of staff, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, that the scarcity of Asian-American officials at the cabinet level was “not acceptable” and needed to be promptly addressed. The pair are the only two Asian-American members of the Senate.
Ms. Duckworth said she followed up on Tuesday morning to inform the White House that she was “a ‘no’ on everything other than the diversity candidates” who came before the Senate until she felt Mr. Biden’s team was taking the right steps, beginning with the president’s nominee for under secretary of defense for policy. Ms. Hirono soon joined her.
“I’ve been talking to them for months,” Ms. Duckworth said in an interview. “They are still not aggressive, so I am not going to be voting for any nominee from the White House other than diversity nominees. I’ll be a ‘no’ on everyone until they figure that out.”
Mr. Biden has tapped Colin Kahl, who served as his national security adviser when he was vice president, for the No. 3 post at the Pentagon, but his nomination faces an uphill climb amid opposition from Republicans. Without backing from Ms. Duckworth and Ms. Hirono, it would be unlikely to move.
Open disputes between Mr. Biden and Democrats on Capitol Hill have been relatively rare in his first months on the job. But prominent Asian-American lawmakers signaled they were done giving the White House the benefit of the doubt.
During the meeting on Monday night, Ms. Duckworth said that Ms. O’Malley Dillon pointed out that Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was from India, and Katherine Tai, who is the top American trade envoy and is of Chinese descent, were Asian-American. The White House considers both women to be part of the cabinet, though they do not lead executive departments.
Ms. Duckworth, who is Thai-American, called the invocation of Ms. Harris to placate her concerns “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,’” she told reporters on Tuesday.
“Why would you say it to A.A.P.I.?” she added, referring to Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Ms. Duckworth added that for months, she had given the White House names of possible Asian-American nominees “who never even got a phone call.”
The White House declined to comment. Axios earlier reported details of the Monday exchange.
Ms. Hirono said on Tuesday that she shared Ms. Duckworth’s “frustration.” They are two of only eight Asian-Americans ever to serve in the Senate, including Ms. Harris.
“This is not about pitting one diversity group against another, so I’m happy to vote for a Hispanic, a Black person, an L.G.B.T.Q. person, an A.A.P.I. person,” Ms. Hirono said. Mr. Biden, she added, made a commitment to diversity in his administration, “and that is what we’re calling for.”
A Rise in Attacks Against Asian-Americans
- Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in the Atlanta massage parlor shootings. The suspect’s motives are under investigation, but Asian communities across the United States are on alert because of a surge in attacks against Asian-Americans over the past year.
- A torrent of hate and violence against Asian-Americans around the U.S. began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Community leaders say the bigotry was spurred by the rhetoric of former President Trump, who referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus.”
- In New York, a wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.
- In January, an 84-year-old man from Thailand was violently slammed to the ground in San Francisco, resulting in his death at a hospital two days later. The attack, captured on video, has become a rallying cry.
Ms. Hirono, who is Japanese-American, said she had also pressed the White House to more regularly poll Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders when gauging support for policy proposals, as it would Black Americans, women and other groups.
Democrats have warned for a year that Republicans’ hostility toward China related to the coronavirus pandemic — including former President Donald J. Trump’s references to the “Kung flu” and the “China virus” — was fanning anti-Asian sentiment. They have started taking more assertive action since last week’s shooting in Atlanta, which left six women of Asian descent dead, pressing their majorities in Congress and the White House to take clearer actions.
Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said on Tuesday that he would fast-track two Democratic bills aimed at tackling the issue.
The first, written by Ms. Hirono and Representative Grace Meng of New York, would delegate a Justice Department official to review all coronavirus-related hate crime reports, direct health officials to issue guidance to discourage racist descriptions of the virus and promote online hate crime databases. The second, introduced by Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, would create new offices in the F.B.I., the Justice Department and the Homeland Security Department focused on domestic terrorism.
“Here in America, we all know that an attack against any one group is an attack against all of us,” Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor. “So it is up to all of us now to stand up and speak out in support of the Asian-American community in America.”
At least one prominent Republican joined Democrats on Tuesday in drawing attention to the issue. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whose wife, Elaine Chao, was born in Taiwan, said anti-Asian racism was a real force in America. But Mr. McConnell, the minority leader, rebuffed Democrats’ efforts to tie the Atlanta shootings to strict new gun control measures.
“As the husband for almost three decades of an Asian-American woman, I have noticed and we have experienced over the years racial prejudice against Asian-Americans,” he said. “It certainly rose to the fore for everyone else when we saw these shootings.”
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