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Harris casts fifth and sixth tiebreak votes to confirm OPM chief

Senate last week postponed vote on Kiran Arjandas Ahuja

Vice President Kamala Harris talks with members of the media in the Capitol on Tuesday, June 22, 2021.
Vice President Kamala Harris talks with members of the media in the Capitol on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Vice President Kamala Harris broke two tie votes Tuesday on President Joe Biden’s choice to lead the Office of Personnel Management, marking her fifth and sixth votes as tiebreaker since assuming the vice presidency.

Harris cast the votes on a procedural move and on final approval of the nomination of Kiran Arjandas Ahuja, after both tallies were stuck at 50-50.

Last week, absences on the Democratic side forced Senate leaders to punt a scheduled vote on Ahuja’s nomination to OPM, which was opposed unanimously by Republicans.

Democrats have a majority in the 50-50 Senate thanks to Harris’ tiebreaker. That allows them to confirm nominations even if Republicans are unified in opposition, but only if they have all 50 of their members and Harris present.

With two Democratic and Republican senators left to cast their votes on final confirmation of Ahuja, the tally stood at 48-48.

The four — Cory Booker, D-N.J., Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, both Republicans from South Carolina — were huddling on the floor having an animated conversation when Harris strode back into the chamber for the second time Tuesday.

She walked up to Connecticut Democrat Christopher S. Murphy, who was sitting in the presiding officer’s chair and said “hi,” as he got up, allowing her to sit down.

After the vote, Harris remained in the presiding officer’s chair for an extended period. That is a departure from the usual quick exit by vice presidents after breaking a tie.

Ahuja is a 49-year-old attorney and daughter of immigrants from India who served at the personnel department in the Obama administration and then was chief executive of a network of philanthropy organizations in the Pacific Northwest.

Republicans fought against Ahuja’s nomination, focusing on two issues that are critical for messaging on cultural issues ahead of the midterm elections: critical race theory and abortion rights. Critical race theory is an academic concept that frames racism as a social construct that heavily impacts legal systems and government policies.

The OPM, a usually obscure agency, was thrust into the middle of a political war over Biden’s government-wide approach to promoting racial equity and reproductive rights.

In March, the administration restored diversity and inclusion training for federal employees that the Trump administration had all but eliminated by requiring agencies to submit materials to the White House for approval.

The OPM has a hand in that type of training, as well as implementation of abortion policy. The agency runs the largest employer-sponsored health insurance program in the country, with 4 million enrollees and an equal number of covered family members.

Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.

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