By Caren Bohan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a week that saw the dramatic collapse of a bill to expand background checks for gun buyers, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sought to project confidence that a measure to overhaul the nation's immigration laws would not fall victim to the same fate.
The so-called "Gang of Eight" senators used a news conference on Thursday to build momentum for the bill that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and allow business to hire more guest workers while stepping up border enforcement.
The four Democrats and four Republicans praised and gently teased one another as they talked of the importance of bringing the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. They spoke of the bond they had formed over months of negotiating the details of the 844-page bill, which the Senate Judiciary Committee will start to examine on Friday.
"Despite strong personalities and even stronger disagreements on many issues, we met in the middle," said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. "The bill is proof that the art of political compromise is not dead."
The failure of the gun bill which had been pushed by President Barack Obama and families of children killed in a gun massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, was the latest incidence of gridlock in Washington, which has also deadlocked over fiscal issues.
Schumer said that through the talks on immigration, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona had become a "great personal friend." Prior to late last year, when the Gang first starting talking, the two had barely spoken to one another despite decades of serving in Congress together.
McCain, who is known for his flashes of a temper, told the news conference that he recognized he was "not the easiest guy to get along with." To laughter in the room, he praised the other senators for having "put up with my tantrums."
Senator Marco Rubio also evoked laughter. The Florida Republican and Tea Party favorite had at times during the negotiations seemed to hesitate on whether he was ready to cut a deal. When he stepped to the podium to make his pitch for the bill, he said: "Actually, I've changed my mind." He quickly added that he was only kidding.
Standing behind the senators was a diverse group of activists who share a common interest in passing a comprehensive bill but differ sharply on many other issues.
Among them were Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO labor organization, conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Even as the senators sought to evoke a feel-good mood, some of them alluded obliquely to prior efforts to pass broad immigration measures that ultimately failed.
Schumer spoke of the prior work on the issue by the late Senator Edward Kennedy, a Democrat. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, mentioned his own experience as a veteran of two previous pushes on immigration and added, "I hope the third time is the charm."
In the last major push for immigration reform, in 2007, McCain, Graham and Kennedy were part of a bipartisan group of senators who hammered out a compromise only to see the saga end in acrimony and partisan finger-pointing when the bill met its demise.
Asked after the news conference if he was worried about history repeating itself, Schumer said this time was different.
"I think we have a stronger start. We've learned from the mistakes of the past. The mood of the country is different and the bill is a very balanced, carefully thought-out bill," he told Reuters.
(Reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)