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Nearly 200 Republicans vote against bill to ease baby formula shortage

A mother prepared a bottle of baby formula in Plymouth, Mass., on Sunday.KAYANA SZYMCZAK/NYT

WASHINGTON — House GOP leaders were among the 192 Republicans who voted against providing $28 million in aid to the Food and Drug Administration to address the shortage of baby formula — within days of criticizing President Biden for not doing enough on the issue.

House minority leader Kevin McCarthy of California, whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, and conference chair Elise Stefanik of New York voted late Wednesday against the measure to provide new FDA funding, which the House approved on a largely party-line vote of 231 to 192. Twelve Republicans broke ranks and joined with Democrats in backing the money.

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On a separate bill, the House voted overwhelmingly 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. The vote was 414 to 9, with all the opposition coming from Republicans.

Meanwhile, Food and Drug Administration commissioner Robert M. Califf told lawmakers Thursday that his agency has been working ‘’tirelessly’' to increase supplies of baby formula nationally and that he expects an Abbott Nutrition plant in Michigan that made much of the country’s formula to be operating again within two weeks.

But Califf, speaking before a House appropriations subcommittee, called the food supply fragile and urged Congress to authorize more funding to expand staffing and inspections to stave off additional supply chain crises. ‘’We could be one natural disaster or cyberattack from being here again,’’ he said.

The FDA has been criticized for moving too slowly to investigate a whistle-blower complaint last year at the Abbott facility, which was inspected and shuttered only this year after two infants were sickened and two infants died after consuming contaminated formula. Abbott has said there isn’t clear evidence the contamination came from the factory.

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‘’Why did the FDA not spring into action?,’’ said Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat. ‘’How many illnesses and deaths were due to the FDA’s slow response? This makes me question which side FDA is on, on the side of Abbott or the American public?’’

The factory’s closure has led to a shortage that has left parents of infants and medically fragile children scrambling to find alternatives. This week, two children were treated at a Tennessee hospital because their parents could not find food for them.

The FDA and Abbott agreed on a path this week to reopening the plant. But Abbott has said once it gets the all-clear from the FDA to reopen, production can begin within two weeks and its products can be back on the shelves six to eight weeks after that.

Califf offered assurances that grocery stores’ stocks of formula will improve even before Abbott products are fully restocked, as other companies step up production domestically.

‘’It will gradually get better,’’ he said. ‘’The big problem we have right now is distribution, and we’ll have to pay special attention to rural areas. It will be a few weeks until we’re back to normal supply.’’

In recent days, Republicans have assailed Biden and the administration about the nationwide shortage that has forced parents to scramble to find formula to feed their infants. On Wednesday, Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to address the issue, tapping a Korean War-era law to ramp up domestic manufacturing rapidly.

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During Wednesday’s floor debate and in recent days, House Republicans have described the Democratic bill providing money to the FDA as unnecessary, arguing that it would do little to solve the root of the problem.

‘’Instead of working with Republicans to find bipartisan solutions to address the issue, Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi dropped this legislation yesterday in hopes of covering up the administration’s ineptitude by throwing additional money at the FDA with no plan to actually fix the problem, all while failing to hold the FDA accountable,’’ Scalise said in a notice urging Republican lawmakers to vote against the measure.

Representative Kay Granger, a Texas Republican, criticized the bill as insufficiently bipartisan and called for existing federal funds to be spent on the issue.

‘’We had the opportunity to work across the aisle on a bipartisan solution to this crisis. Unfortunately, the text we’re considering today has not been agreed to by both sides,’’ she said during Wednesday’s House debate.

Representative Stephanie Bice, an Oklahoma Republican, said she voted against the FDA bill because there was ‘’no reason’' to give the agency additional money.

‘’You can’t throw money at this problem,’’ she said. ‘’This is a failure of leadership within the FDA as well as the administration’s failure to act and so throwing you know, millions of dollars at the problem isn’t going to actually fix it.’’

The lawmaker argued that none of the additional funding would address the biggest problem: getting formula to families.

‘’This is about families and how they’re struggling to meet the needs of infants, and we need to be focused on that specifically,’’ she said.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said Thursday that the 192 Republicans who opposed the bill are the latest example of the party’s unwillingness to address the issues that matter most to Americans.

‘’We see a baby formula as something that’s at the kitchen table,’’ she said in her weekly news conference. ‘’So, we think from the standpoint of the kitchen table, that there is no comparison between’' Democrats and Republicans.

‘’I mean, they don’t even vote for domestic terrorism,’’ Pelosi added in reference to Republicans’ overwhelming opposition to a bill Wednesday night aimed at curbing homegrown violent extremism. ‘’It’s nuts.’’