WASHINGTON - The Senate rejected a compromise proposal to expand background checks on gun purchases, dealing a blow to the core of legislative efforts to curb massacres such as the one at a Connecticut school in December.
The 54-46 vote came on an amendment by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. Sixty votes were necessary to get around a filibuster - a tall order because it meant drawing on Republican support to make up for losing majority-party Democrats.
Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana and Mark Begich of Alaska -- who are up for re-election in 2014 in red states -- and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota were among the "no" votes.
Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, another Democrat on the ballot next year, voted for the amendment. In a surprise, ailing Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., appeared in the chamber for the first time in weeks to cast an "aye" vote. He has been battling muscle weakness and fatigue, and came to the Senate in a wheelchair.
After the vote was announced, a woman sitting in the Senate gallery shouted "Shame on you!"
In a sign of the importance of the gun debate, Vice President Biden presided over the chamber. Ahead of the Senate vote, he told mayors in an online chat that he was hoping to find 60 senators who "have courage" and would vote in favor of the gun legislation. But Biden seemed to acknowledge it would be a long shot.
"I can assure you one thing: We're going to get this eventually," Biden said. "If we don't get it today, we'll get it eventually. I think the American people are way ahead of their elected officials."
Before the vote, Manchin pleaded with his colleagues to remember the 26 people who died Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"If you want to remember those 20 babies -- beautiful children -- and the six brave teachers ... and you want to honor the most courageous family members I have ever met, please vote for this bill," he said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the proposal would do nothing to end massacres such as those in Newtown.
The Senate will now take votes on other amendments, including one to ban assault weapons and limit the size of magazine clips, as well as a package of legislation addressing mental health issues.
Also being considered: A substitute plan unveiled Wednesday by Grassley that would tighten the background check database but not expand the types of sales subject to it.
Hours before the scheduled vote, Manchin held up his NRA membership card in the Senate chamber and called out the gun lobby for "lies" about what his measure would do. Specifically, he said, the gun lobby had inaccurately claimed the amendment would criminalize the transfer of guns to friends and family members.
"Where I come from, West Virginia, I don't know how to put the words any plainer than this: That is a lie. That is simply a lie," he said. "It's not a universal background check."
The expanded background checks would have extended to purchases made at gun shows and on the Internet. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday morning that the bill would not create a national registry of guns or gun owners and derided such claims as "nothing but shameful scare tactics."
Earlier in the day, a pro-gun rights group withdrew its support for the background checks proposal. The Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms said it could no longer support the amendment because it did not have adequate provisions to make sure people could have their gun rights restored if, for example, a conviction was expunged.
Contributing: Aamer Madhani