By Daniella Diaz, CNN
Updated: Thu, 19 May 2022 20:09:01 GMT
A group of Democratic senators are calling on President Joe Biden to appoint someone to oversee the baby formula shortage as it continues to devastate families across the country searching for supplies.
The lack of baby formula has real world consequences as well as possible political ones as the issue joins a growing number of crises that the party is struggling to find a unified response to, including rising gas prices and inflated costs for consumer goods.
Sen. Patty Murray, the chairwoman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania led 30 Democrats in sending a letter to Biden urging him to hire someone who can implement a national strategy to deal with the supply chain issues.
"We urge you to immediately assign a coordinator within the White House to work with manufacturers directly and oversee the development and implementation of a national strategy," they wrote in the letter, which was first reported by NBC News.
The Democrats added: "We need organized leadership and a clear plan for addressing this crisis. We cannot stop working on this issue until babies are fed."
Some top Democrats gave cover to the administration. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi voiced broad support for how Biden has handled his first term and even said she supported the administration's handling of the baby formula shortage.
"I am, yes," Pelosi said when asked about the administration's handling of the formula shortage crisis.
"The President has been very clear," Pelosi said. "He wants to be as fast as we need to be, but we have to be safe."
Pelosi was unwavering in her confidence that Democrats would hold onto the House in November, despite a growing number of crises to which the party is struggling to address.
"I have absolutely no intention of the Democrats not winning the House in November," she said.
Questions over not invoking DPA sooner
The calls for action come a day after Biden invoked the Defense Production Act following requests from lawmakers to do so in response to the nationwide formula shortage. This will require suppliers to direct resources to infant formula manufacturers "before any other customer who may have ordered that good" to help boost supply. Officials have cautioned that invoking this isn't a "magic wand" and won't increase supply instantly.
The Biden administration continues to have "active and ongoing conversations" with companies about how specifically the act will be deployed, senior administration officials told reporters during a briefing on Thursday.
Asked for logistical details on when Defense Department cargo planes will begin to land in the US with formula from abroad and where they will be directed, a senior administration official told CNN's Maegan Vazquez that the federal government is still looking to identify a manufacturer that has available formula to bring in.
The official said that once a manufacturer is identified, "We work with them to secure the specifics."
The Biden administration has faced growing questions and criticism, including from Democrats, for the national shortage that has anxious and angry parents hopping from store to store in search of baby food.
Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Mark Kelly of Arizona, two of the chambers most vulnerable Democrats running for reelection this fall, expressed concern over the shortage and also called on the administration and Washington to do more.
Masto indicated the administration should have invoked the Defense Production Act sooner than they did.
"I sent a letter prior saying they should act," she said, before adding, "I can tell you I sent a letter for a reason."
Kelly also expressed concern, telling CNN that while invoking the Defense Production Act on Wednesday was a "move in the positive direction," that "it's been a couple of weeks."
"I mean, we've got a major issue here. You know, we've got families across the country that are really struggling," added Kelly. "So this is critical — I mean, it's, it's a crisis right now."
"Hindsight is 20/20 and you could always do things earlier," he said. "I'm glad to see the administration did this yesterday."
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, dodged when asked if Biden should have invoked the Defense Production Act sooner.
"I can tell you, we're trying to balance the safety of the product and the availability of the product," he told CNN. "Whether others can step in and produce the needed formula that meets all the safety standards is real, important question."
He added: "It's a tough challenge in terms of making sure that safe formula is available for all American infants."
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut was much more forceful.
"I urged repeatedly use of the Defense Production Act, I regret that it took a few days and maybe longer to do it," he told CNN. "But now it ought to be used robustly."
Asked if the Senate should leave town next week if they haven't acted on the House-passed supplemental for baby formula, Blumenthal said, "I think we're going to act on infant formula. And if we don't, maybe we should stay here. It is a crisis that demands are being on duty."
Key votes on formula
At her news conference, Pelosi said what matters is that Democrats are addressing the various issues on baby formula, inflation and gas prices.
"It's not about whether it exists or not, it's about what are we doing about it," Pelosi said. "The recognition and what are we doing about it."
The House also passed a pair of bills, led by Democrats, on Wednesday aimed at addressing the shortage. One of the bills passed by the House Wednesday evening would provide $28 million in emergency funding for the US Food and Drug Administration in an effort to help alleviate the current shortfall and head off future shortages.
The other bill -- the Access to Baby Formula Act -- is aimed at ensuring that families in need can continue to buy baby formula with WIC benefits during a public health emergency or supply chain issues such as a product recall. WIC refers to the federal assistance program known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
But in a bright spot for Democrats, the Senate did approve by unanimous consent the Access to Baby Formula Act.
"The Senate has just passed legislation to help ease the terrible nightmare parents are facing trying to find baby formula for their kids," said Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in remarks on the Senate floor. "It's rare that we have unanimity in the Senate on important measures, and I wish we had more. But this is one of these important issues and I'm glad we're acting with one voice."
The other bill that would provide $28 million in emergency funding continues to face stiff Republican opposition, and would need at least 10 GOP senators to sign on in order to overcome a filibuster. Republican leaders have cited the cost as an issue and say that the Biden administration has the tools it needs to resolve the problem.
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.