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A container of formula. President Joe Biden on Wednesday invoked the Defense Production Act to address a nationwide shortage in baby formula, marking a major attempt to ramp up domestic manufacturing rapidly as parents are scrambling and store shelves are running bare.

A container of formula. President Joe Biden on Wednesday invoked the Defense Production Act to address a nationwide shortage in baby formula, marking a major attempt to ramp up domestic manufacturing rapidly as parents are scrambling and store shelves are running bare. (Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday invoked the Defense Production Act to address a nationwide shortage of baby formula, tapping a Korean War-era law to ramp up domestic manufacturing rapidly as parents are scrambling and store shelves are running bare.

The White House said the directive requires the suppliers of key formula ingredients to prioritize the delivery of those resources to formula producers, adding that the administration will simultaneously launch a new operation to ensure faster flights of imports using Defense Department air cargo contracts.

The moves reflected the magnitude of the current shortage, which has seen some parents driving for miles on end to locate formula, including specialty products that are critical to infants' health. The U.S. government previously tapped the same 1950 law in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, racing then to ensure the speedy production of key equipment as the public health crisis worsened.

The new White House orders arrived just hours before Congress late Wednesday took its own steps to try to ease the supply crunch. The House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would expand access to formula for low-income Americans. Democrats then drove the adoption of $28 million in new funding for the Food and Drug Administration, hoping to prevent future disruptions and enhance safety inspections in the wake of a major plant shutdown in Michigan over sanitation concerns.

The closure of that plant, operated by Abbott Laboratories, drew fresh scrutiny earlier in the day from a wide array of top Democrats. Party lawmakers including Sens. Ron Wyden, Ore.; Cory Booker, N.J.; and Elizabeth Warren, Mass., fired off sharply critical letters questioning the company's business practices — including its decision to spend recent record revenue on stock buybacks rather than safety improvements.

"As Abbott spent billions buying back its own stock, it appears that it failed to make necessary repairs to fix a critical manufacturing plant of infant formula located in Michigan," charged Wyden, the chairman of the tax-focused Senate Finance Committee, in a missive to the company that marked the start of a panel probe.

Vicky Assardo, a spokeswoman for Abbott, stressed in response that the company is a "responsible and transparent taxpayer, paying all of its taxes owed in every country in which it operates." She added that stock buybacks "are not impacting our ability to invest in or reopen" the facility, located in Sturgis, Mich., as the company's "strong balance sheet helps us respond more quickly to the current challenge."

The flurry of efforts illustrated the growing sense of urgency in the nation's capital, where Democrats and Republicans alike have felt voters' ire in recent weeks about the shortage. The trouble also has compounded parents' broader economic anxieties as the costs of gasoline, groceries and other goods are rising amid the fastest uptick in inflation in roughly 40 years.

Much of the disruption is tied to the halt in production at the Abbott facility, since the company is one of four manufacturers that together produce about 90% of the country's supply. In February, Abbott recalled its formula amid reports that bacteria sickened two children and led to the deaths of two others, though the company has maintained there is no definitive link between the cases and its products.

In recent days, the U.S. government has worked with Abbott on a way to reopen the plant safely. But the process could take months, leaving lawmakers and White House officials scrambling for ways to get formula back on store shelves more quickly. That included the president's decision on Wednesday to invoke the Defense Production Act, a law that even some Democrats initially felt might not cover food security issues. Biden coupled his announcements with a public letter formally requesting key federal agencies "take all appropriate measures available to get additional safe formula into the country immediately."

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, some lawmakers focused their scrutiny on the FDA, arguing the top safety agency should have acted more aggressively — and sooner — to prevent the supply crunch. A whistleblower even tried to warn the FDA about safety concerns at the Abbott plant last October, according to Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., the top lawmaker on the House Appropriations Committee, who has been in touch with the still-unnamed individual. But the FDA did not interview the source until late December, the congresswoman has said, prompting her to join other lawmakers in blasting the agency this week as failing to conduct proper oversight.

To boost the agency, DeLauro chiefly crafted the measure provisioning $28 million in new FDA funding, which the House approved on a largely party-line vote of 231 to 192.

"The bill is really essential because the FDA plays such a critical role, and what we want to do is get the product on the shelf and make sure it's manufactured in the safest way," she said in an interview.

Lawmakers also overwhelmingly adopted a separate bill that aims to ease the burden on low-income parents by allowing the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program — a major national purchaser of formula — to source it from more foreign suppliers. That passed on a vote of 414 to 9.

"WIC recipients utilize formula at roughly double the rate of their nonparticipating families, ensuring this crisis has had a disproportionate impact on communities and families with the highest needs," said Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., the author of the bill. She stressed in a speech on the House floor that its approval would assist low-income families during the current shortage and in the event of future recalls.

Democrats have promised additional actions to come: At a news conference earlier this week, they teased a forthcoming hearing featuring witnesses from the FDA and top formula manufacturers, including Abbott, Gerber and Reckitt. And party lawmakers said they had asked for a federal investigation into the specific causes of the current crunch that has depleted store shelves nationally.

The fate of those legislative efforts hinges on the Senate, where Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday he hoped to act swiftly in response to the shortage. Noting the bipartisan nature of the House bill to expand formula access for low-income Americans on WIC, Schumer called on lawmakers to send it to Biden's desk soon without a lengthy floor fight.

But the House debate on the $28 million in FDA funding telegraphed a tougher battle on the horizon, since Democrats need GOP support to forge ahead in the narrowly divided Senate. Late Wednesday, House Republicans teed off on the measure, which Rep. Kay Granger, Texas, the party's top lawmaker on the Appropriations Committee, said "does nothing to force the FDA to come up with a plan to address the shortage."

In recent days, aides to Senate GOP leadership have expressed further skepticism about the need for such spending. Many of the party's top lawmakers also have assailed the Biden administration, arguing it should have anticipated the crisis and acted sooner to address it.

"We need to help families solve it. It should have been foreseeable. And it's unfortunate. And I'm willing to look at any solution," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said this week.

But, he added of the Democrats' new bill: "I'm not sure it's a solution. You know, every problem can't be solved with immediate money."

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The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis and Laura Reiley contributed to this report.

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