Harris, the first female and first Asian American and Black American elected vice president in the nation’s history, spoke early Wednesday in an interview on “CBS This Morning,” hours after two Asian American Democratic senators vowed not to vote for any of Biden’s nominees that weren’t diverse until the White House figures out” a solution to the lack of Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI) representation at the Cabinet level of his administration.
Late Tuesday, after the comments from Sens. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, the White House relented, announcing that a senior level AAPI official would be named, pledging more appointments and promising “policy proposals that are relevant and important to the community.”
On Wednesday morning, Harris said, “We are very proud that among our Cabinet we have majority people of color, and it’s historic in that way. We are proud that we have an equal number of women and men.”
But the vice president added, “There’s still more work to be done. There’s no question about that.”
Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who was wounded in combat and who is the first native of Thailand elected to Congress, for months had been urging Biden’s transition team and then his administration to appoint more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the Cabinet, without much success.
When Duckworth and Hirono, the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate, brought up their concerns again during a conference call on Monday evening, Duckworth says White House officials pointed to the vice president’s Asian American heritage as if to suggest that the AAPI box was checked.
“To be told that, ‘Well, you have Kamala Harris, we’re very proud of her, you don’t need anybody else’ is insulting,” Duckworth told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
“That was the trigger for me. But multiple times I’ve heard that,” the senator added. “And 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?”
In this March 18, 2021 photo, Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a meeting with women leaders in the labor community in the Vice President’s ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus, in Washington.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Asked about her reaction, Hirono told reporters, “I wouldn’t say I was offended, but I joined her [Duckworth] in our frustration and disappointment that there is not more AAPI representation in the Cabinet.”
After the White House relented, Duckworth late Tuesday said she “will not stand in the way of President Biden’s qualified nominees – which will include AAPI.”
Biden pledged during the 2020 presidential campaign and during the transition to nominate a Cabinet that reflects America’s diversity. “The administration, both in the White House and outside in the Cabinet, is going to look like the country,” Biden said in early December.
The permanent secretaries of the 15 executive departments were finalized on Monday evening, when the Senate confirmed Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as Labor Secretary. At roughly 55% non-white and approximately 45% female, Biden’s Cabinet is historically diverse. But the Cabinet does not include any AAPI members.
Besides Harris, Katherine Tai was unanimously confirmed last week by the Senate as the first woman of color and first Asian American to serve as U.S. trade representative. While both the vice president and the U.S. trade representative are Cabinet-level positions, they are not technically considered Cabinet secretaries.
The showdown over Cabinet representation comes amid a national discussion over AAPI discrimination and targeting, following last week’s mass shooting in Georgia, where six of the eight people slain were Asian American women.
And it also spotlights the Senate Democrats razor thin majority – the chamber is split 50/50 but the Democrats have the majority due to Harris’ tie breaking vote as vice president – which means the Biden administration can’t afford any Democratic defections if it wants to pass its agenda.
Fox News’ Jason Donner and Kelly Phares contributed to this report.