Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), flanked by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), left, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), right, speaks Thursday on immigration reform legislation that would create a path for the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) offered his full endorsement of a controversial immigration package Thursday, but not before having a little fun with his fellow senators.

“I’ve changed my mind,” Rubio announced in front of dozens of reporters at the Dirksen Senate Building, where eight senators were appearing at a news conference to tout their 844-page proposal to overhaul U.S. immigration laws.

Rubio turned to walk away.

“Not again!” yelled Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had worked for months to keep the fragile coalition of four Democrats and four Republicans on track.

“Just joking,” Rubio replied, with a chuckle.

Rubio’s gag was a nod to his unique position within the so-called “Gang of Eight,” whose comprehensive legislative proposal already has drawn sharp criticism from some conservative talk radio hosts and bloggers over a 13-year path to citizenship for up to 11 million illegal immigrants.

The formal release of the bill this week kicks of months of public debate and Rubio, perhaps more than his seven colleagues, will be counted on to contain an expected conservative rebellion. He has toed a careful line through the months of negotiations that produced the bill.

Returning to the lectern, Rubio, a tea party favorite, turned serious and delivered a passionate case in support.

“This is who we are: We are the descendants of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Rubio said, cribbing from the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. He also made a direct plea to fellow conservatives to reconsider their position that allowing citizenship to the undocumented amounts to “amnesty.”

“We have millions here in violation of our immigration laws, and we’re not going to deport them,” Rubio said. “We all wish we didn’t have this problem, but we do. Leaving things as they are — that’s the real amnesty.”

Rubio has begun to make that argument in earnest this week as he braces for a backlash among the right wing of the Republican Party.

Shortly before the so-called “Gang of Eight” met the media, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) denounced the bill as “amnesty before enforcement.” Earlier in the day, Rubio phoned in to answer questions from Rush Limbaugh, the king of conservative talk radio, who had demanded to know how the bill would benefit Republicans.

“I don’t understand why we are doing something the Democrats are salivating over,” Limbaugh griped. “I do not agree with Chuck Schumer on anything, and I’m being told I should on this.”

Rubio stood firm. “It’s not good for the country to have 11 million people that we do not know who they are, where they are living, who are not paying taxes, who are showing up in emergency rooms, who are having children who are U.S. citizens. It’s an issue that needs to be dealt with, an issue Democrats will raise anyway, so we might as well have an alternative.”

Some Republican leaders believe it is in the party’s best interest to pass immigration reform in order to allow the GOP to make its case to a growing bloc of Hispanic voters, who tend to back a path to citizenship and overwhelmingly supported President Obama last fall.

Limbaugh was skeptical, arguing that allowing millions of Latino immigrants to become citizens would simply create millions of new Democrats. Rubio, often cited as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, disagreed.

“I’m not prepared to admit [that] an entire population of people, because of their heritage, are not willing to listen to our pitch that limited government is better,” he said.

“I wish you luck,” Limbaugh offered.

At the news conference, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that Republicans “have got to compete for the Hispanic voter. The passage of this legislation, in my view, will not gain a single vote from the Hispanic community. But put on the level, we can compete in the battle of ideas, which we think we win.”

Schumer then pretended to walk away in disgust, prompting laughs. It was that kind of atmosphere. A day after the defeat of gun-control measures left Democrats bitter, four senators from each party stood shoulder to shoulder and declared they would revive a spirit of bipartisanship.

“I think a majority in both caucuses really want to get this done,” Schumer said. “ . . . This is not at all like gun control because I think the product we’re starting out with has broader support on a broader basis . . . in the Senate and in the country.”

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