The White House said Tuesday that it would appoint a senior official to focus on Asian-American priorities after the Senate’s two Asian-American Democrats called on President Biden to address what they said was an unacceptable lack of representation at the highest levels of his administration.
In a late-night statement, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Biden would name “a senior-level Asian-American Pacific Islander liaison who will ensure the community’s voice is further represented and heard.”
“The president has made it clear that his administration will reflect the diversity of the country,” Ms. Psaki said. “That has always been, and remains, our goal.”
The announcement came hours after Senators Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii promised to withhold their votes on some nominees until Mr. Biden engaged more actively on the issue amid a rising tide of racism toward Asian-Americans during the pandemic, culminating in last week’s deadly shootings in the Atlanta area.
With the Senate divided evenly between the two parties, the move temporarily threatened to derail the president’s hopes of confirming several executive branch officials, including the Pentagon’s No. 3. Apparently, it also created considerable pressure to find a solution to a diversity problem the senators said they had been quietly raising for months.
Open disputes between Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats have been relatively rare in his first months in office, and the senators’ ultimatum was an unusual public disagreement within a party in uniform control of Washington. But by late Tuesday, Ms. Duckworth and Ms. Hirono had dropped their threats and appeared satisfied by the administration’s response.
Ben Garmisa, a spokesman for Ms. Duckworth, said in a statement that the senator appreciated the White House’s “assurances that it will do much more to elevate A.A.P.I. voices and perspectives at the highest levels of government,” referring to Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. He added that the White House had given assurances that its new appointee would work both to confirm more Asian-American and Pacific Islander nominees and to advance legislation that was “relevant and important to the community.”
“Accordingly, she will not stand in the way of President Biden’s qualified nominees — which will include more A.A.P.I. leaders,” Mr. Garmisa said of Ms. Duckworth.
Citing her own conversation with the White House, Ms. Hirono said on Twitter that she would also “continue voting to confirm the historic and highly qualified nominees President Biden has appointed to serve in his administration.”
The brief standoff came after the senators had used a private 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 had followed up on Tuesday morning to tell the White House that she was “a ‘no’ on everything other than the diversity candidates” who came before the Senate until she felt that 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.
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. Axios earlier reported details of the Monday exchange.
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.
Ms. Duckworth said that for months she had given the White House names of possible Asian-American nominees “who never even got a phone call.”
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.
- 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.
“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.”
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 Department of Homeland Security 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 the United States. 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.”