April 26, 2021

Duckworth makes waves

The Illinois Democrat, sitting in a congressional majority for the first time in her career, is already chalking up wins.

Source: National Journal


en. Tammy Duckworth, for the first time in her career, sits in a congressional majority. And she’s making the most of it.

Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat up for reelection next year, holds no committee chairmanships and isn’t in congressional leadership.

But only three months into the Democrats’ majority, the first-termer is racking up legislative wins in the narrowly divided chamber and extracting concessions from the White House.

“I have a very long list of things I want to get done,” Duckworth said in a phone interview. “And I’m very pleased and proud that, you know, within these first months, I’m getting a lot of those things done.”

Duckworth built her political career and national name recognition on her military service. Late last month she published her memoir, Every Day Is A Gift, which recalls in vivid and at times profanity-laced detail the loss of both of her legs in 2004 after a rocket-propelled grenade shot down her Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq, her subsequent recovery at Walter Reed Medical Center, and the medical tribulations she faced on her way to become the first sitting senator to give birth.

After working at the Veterans Affairs Department in Illinois and Washington, Duckworth won her seat in the House just as the Republicans retook the chamber and gave Speaker John Boehner the gavel. After her election to the Senate the same year President Trump won the White House, she emerged as a frequent critic of “Cadet Bone Spurs,” in her words, and his military policies.

But now that Democrats control both chambers and the White House, it’s on domestic priorities where Duckworth is winning her most-recent battles.

The Senate last week voted 94-1 to approve Sen. Mazie Hirono’s hate-crimes legislation. Duckworth was the primary cosponsor, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer shortly after praised her and a handful of other Democrats with demonstrating “exceptional leadership” in getting the bill across the finish line. It must be approved by the House before it can go to President Biden’s desk.

When a mass shooting in Atlanta punctuated a year of rising violent crime against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Duckworth sent letters to Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray asking them to consolidate and direct federal law enforcement efforts to identify, arrest, and prosecute perpetrators of hate crimes against people of Asian descent.

“Mazie then came to me and said, ‘Can we just take what you did on your letters and put it into the bill, and will you join me on the bill?’” Duckworth told National Journal. “So I said ‘Yes, absolutely.’”

Less than a week after Duckworth petitioned the DOJ for action, Hirono filed her bill with Duckworth’s input directing the department to designate a point person in the effort to combat actual and perceived hate crimes related to COVID-19 and improve reporting around those crimes. Schumer rushed it to the floor, skipping the committee process entirely.

“She was very much a partner, I mean, when it came to some of the language and all of that,” Hirono said in an interview Thursday. “But I share the responsibility for getting this bill through with Chuck and all the other people who worked on it.”

Duckworth and other members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus also made the push in person for a response to the rise in hate crimes against the AAPI community, sitting down with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the Oval Office this month.

The effort was personal for Duckworth, the first and only Thai-American senator. In recent days, she has repeatedly recalled that her 80-year-old mother was harassed three weeks ago by a grocery-store clerk while she was trying to buy grapes for her granddaughter.

“This bill will allow me to go home and tell my mom we did something about it,” Duckworth told reporters after the bill’s passage. “And this bill tells the AAPI community, who are seen as the other who are often asked ‘Where are you from really?’—And I’ve had that happen to me while wearing the uniform of this nation, with her flag on my shoulder, been asked ‘Where are you from really?’”

Duckworth plays first fiddle as soon as this week on a 106-page bill that authorizes more than $35 billion for water-resource development projects especially aimed at upgrading aging infrastructure. Schumer in a floor speech Monday said the Senate will take up the bill this week and that he hopes to pass it “ASAP.”

“I can't help but acknowledge my colleague, Senator Tammy Duckworth, when it comes to clean water and new lead pipes and service lines for our drinking-water systems,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Illinois’s senior senator and Duckworth’s self-professed mentor, said in a floor speech Monday. “I am proud of the initiative and leadership that she is showing working with other members of the Senate to make this a reality.”

Duckworth says her position as chair of the Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife Subcommittee allowed her to “spearhead” an effort she has worked on since her time on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, when dangerous levels of lead and other chemicals leached into the water supply in Flint, Michigan.

“I believe very strongly that it’s well beyond time that we completely replace all of the lead service lines in this country,” Duckworth said, noting that nearly a quarter of such lines are in Illinois.

Duckworth said provisions making grants available to Native American organizations also helped bring in the support of senators representing more rural states. More than 40 percent of the bill's allocations, according to her office, would target disadvantaged rural and tribal communities.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of concerns about clean drinking water,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee. “And we were able to meet a lot of the members’ specific requests in the bill.”

The bill passed by voice vote this month out of a committee with 10 Republicans on it. Six of those Republicans are original cosponsors.

“Everybody’s been involved,” said Sen. Tom Carper, the panel’s chair. “But Tammy’s name is on the bill, and she played just a very key role.”

More of her legislation could also make its way to the Senate floor soon. The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled Thursday to mark-up her bill banning the sale of crib bumpers, which risk suffocating infants as opposed to protecting them.

Duckworth has also made waves beyond the legislative front. Last month, she threatened to vote against any “non-diversity nominees” given Biden’s lack of Cabinet secretaries of Asian descent. That meant potentially scuttling the confirmation of the likes of Colin Kahl, a nominee to be the Pentagon’s under secretary for policy.

“In a 50-50 Senate, every senator has the power to complicate,” Durbin told reporters at the time.

Duckworth relented after the White House agreed to name Erika Moritsugu as Biden’s Asian American and Pacific Islander senior liaison with the rank of deputy assistant to the president. When Kahl’s nomination came up for a procedural floor vote last week, Duckworth joined every Democrat in advancing it in the face of united Republican opposition.

“I told them, ‘I want somebody in the White House, in the West Wing, who can stand up in the Oval Office and say, ‘You are overlooking this,’ or ‘This is really important,’ or ‘We’re about to make a mistake,’” Duckworth said. “And we’re very pleased that she’s there. And she’s the right person to do that job.

“But the rest of the agreement, I’m not at liberty to tell you what that is,” she added. “But I will tell you that the White House responded to us right away.”

Duckworth’s attention is quickly turning to larger packages that could include her priorities. She has praised Biden’s proposed climate package, and she’s pushing for legislation investing in coal workers and communities displaced by the shift to new energy sources.

And she has “a whole bunch of priorities” she’s hoping to get included in a new National Defense Authorization Act, which is due for drafting by the Armed Services Committees in the coming months.

“I have a very big and long and active list that we’re going to just keep pushing on,” Duckworth said.

By:  Zachary Cohen