Reporting from Washington — As expected, the U.S. Senate failed Wednesday to advance either the House Republicans' spending bill or an alternative proposal offered by Democrats, leaving lawmakers just nine days to work on a compromise plan or face a government shutdown.
Neither plan achieved even a simple majority of support in the chamber. The vote in the Senate was 56-44 against the plan approved by the Republican-led House last month, which would cut current spending levels by $61 billion. A subsequent vote on the alternate proposal from Senate Democrats, which offers cuts of $6.5 billion, failed 58-42. Sixty votes were needed to advance the measures.
The vote comes as President Obama faces new pressure to exert greater influence over the congressional debate. As the Senate readied for votes on the competing measures Tuesday, freshman Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) accused both parties of engaging in "political theater."
"Why are we doing all this when the most powerful person in these negotiations -- our president -- has failed to lead this debate or offer a serious proposal for spending and cuts that he would be willing to fight for?" Manchin said.
After the president signed a short-term measure giving lawmakers two more weeks to agree on a longer deal, he tasked Vice President Joe Biden with heading up direct talks with the leadership of both parties in Congress. Biden left just days after that initial meeting for a three-nation tour of Europe, however.
The White House has maintained that the administration was still actively engaged, but took steps Wednesday to do so more publicly.
Obama huddled with Senate Democratic leaders for a strategy session just hours before the Senate vote. Earlier, the White House issued yet another veto threat of the House GOP's budget proposal.
"The unbalanced bill would undermine the nation's economic recovery and its ability to succeed in a complex global environment," the administration said in a statement.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also announced that Biden was making a number of calls to congressional leadership from Moscow, where he met Wednesday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
"In this broader debate about budgets and spending, the president has been engaged since the state of the union with leaders from both parties," Carney said. "We are engaged. We don't read out every meeting and phone call."
He said Wednesday's meeting was not called in response to criticism from Manchin and others, but had been scheduled for days.
The White House maintains that it has moved "halfway" toward Republicans' proposal and is prepared to make cuts beyond the current offering from Senate Democrats. Republicans dispute the administration's math, which is based on spending levels in the president's last budget proposal, which was never implemented. In reality, the sides remain approximately $50 billion apart with no indication of where compromise could be found.
"This week's debate is just a dress rehearsal for the big stuff, and so far Democrats are showing they're just not up to it," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday. "And the president appears to be totally uninterested in leading us to a bipartisan solution -- the way Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did the last times we faced a crisis of this magnitude."
Carney said he still believed all sides could reach an agreement before March 18, at which point the government would shutdown without a new extension.
All Senate Democrats voted against the House Republicans' bill, joined by three "tea party" Republicans who maintained the cuts did not go far enough. But 10 Democrats and one independent who caucuses with the party voted against their own alternative, including six who are seeking re-election in 2012.