AUSTIN, Texas — Republicans aiming to retake control of Congress have already sharpened a message centering around blaming Democrats for high inflation, expensive gas, migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and violent crime in some cities.
But GOP leaders landed on an issue this week that it hopes could prove even more potent: tying President Joe Biden to a shortage in baby formula.
Parents are suddenly running into bare supermarket and pharmacy shelves in part because of ongoing supply disruptions and a recent safety recall. But in an election year that was already shaping up to be rocky for Democrats, Republicans sense that the shortage could prove to be an especially tangible way to argue that Biden is incapable of quickly solving problems confronting the U.S.
"This is not a Third World country," said GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the chair of the House Republican conference. "This should never happen in the United States of America."
The administration has sometimes been slow in responding to sudden political threats, perhaps most notably when signs of inflation began to surface last year. The White House appears determined not to repeat that mistake, announcing on Friday that formula maker Abbott Laboratories committed to give rebates through August for a food stamp-like program that helps women, infants and children called WIC.
Biden insisted there's "nothing more urgent we're working on" than addressing the shortage.
Asked if his administration had responded as quickly as it should have, Biden said, "If we'd been better mind readers, I guess we could've. But we moved as quickly as the problem became apparent."
But the defense by the White House illustrates how finger-pointing at the Biden administration has already spread far and wide among Republicans in Washington, on television and on social media. It's a new issue for the GOP to hammer at and a way to address families at a time when Democrats believe outrage over the U.S. Supreme Court possibly ending the right to an abortion could galvanize women and other key voters, and thwart or at least lessen a Republican wave in November.
The full-court press by Republicans included linking the formula shortage with the rising number of migrants coming into the U.S. — one of the biggest issues they have sought to lay at the feet of an unpopular president. On Thursday, Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Florida, shared an image of a shelving unit at a U.S. Border Patrol facility in Texas that showed a single shelf with four boxes full of baby formula containers, and a half-dozen more baby formula containers on that shelf.
Cammack said Thursday that a border patrol agent sent her the image. The AP has not independently verified the photo's authenticity or when exactly it was captured. Some conservative pundits and news outlets have since spun even greater tall tales from the photo, with some claiming that they show Biden is shipping "thousands" of pallets of baby formula to the border while parents in the U.S. struggle to find formula. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called the images "shameful."
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that Border Patrol is "following the law" that requires the government to provide adequate food, specifically formula for children under the age of one, who are detained at the border.
GOP political consultants nonetheless call it a ready-made issue that resonates with voters.
"It's just another one of those consumer issues that pop up from time to time that are very easy for people understand," said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist based in Texas. "They've got to figure out a solution and they've got to do it soon."
In Washington, lawmakers are responding to the shortage by scheduling hearings and demanding information from the FDA and formula makers as part of sweeping investigations. Democratic leaders of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform wrote formula makers seeking information that includes what steps they are taking to increase supplies and prevent price gouging.
"The national formula shortage poses a threat to the health and economic security of infants and families in communities across the country—particularly those with less income who have historically experienced health inequities, including food insecurity," said a letter to Chris Calamari, the president of Abbott Nutrition.
The letter seeks all documents related to the closure of Abbott Nutrition's plant in Sturgis, Michigan. Abbott Nutrition recalled several major brands of powdered formula and shut down the factory when federal officials began investigating four babies who suffered bacterial infections after consuming formula from the facility.
Abbott is one of only a handful of companies that produce the vast majority of the U.S. formula supply, so their recall wiped out a large segment of the market.
Democrats are framing the shortage as an example of how Americans are harmed when a few big companies control the market. But like inflation or high gas prices, their challenge is explaining the contributing factors to the public.
Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection this year, said the supply chain problems with formula, microchips, gasoline and other products have complex roots, many that stretch back to the pandemic.
"It's up for us in Congress to address these, to try to figure out where to go, how do we overcome these bottlenecks in the supply chains," Kelly said. "But not because of an election. Because this affects people's lives."
Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix and Joshua Boak, Kevin Freking and Amanda Seitz in Washington contributed to this report.