By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Joe Manchin became so emotional on Wednesday about the Newtown massacre and his push for background checks for gun buyers that parents whose children were killed at the Connecticut school in December were moved to comfort him.
"I'm a parent. ... I'm a grandparent," the West Virginia Democrat told reporters during a meeting in his office with eight Newtown family members on Wednesday, when asked what he thought it meant to have them visiting the U.S. Capitol.
"I can't imagine this ... to do something," he tried to say, in tears, before giving up on his effort to answer.
An aide picked up a box of tissues, and handed them to Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son, Dylan, was among the 20 children killed at the school. Hockley passed them out to the others - the other relatives, and the distraught senator.
"Let's all share," Manchin joked shakily as some of the parents consoled him.
Manchin, a conservative Democrat who has been a firm supporter of gun rights, reached a breakthrough deal with a Republican senator, Pat Toomey, on a measure to expand background checks for gun buyers.
The deal, which they announced on Wednesday, boosts the prospects the Senate will approve at least some of the gun restrictions proposed by President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting.
Eleven relatives of the Newtown victims flew to Washington on Air Force One with Obama on Monday. They have spent much of the past two days in meetings with senators, urging them at least to allow a vote on Obama's proposals.
"Senator, the worst day of my life wasn't December 14, it was actually the Sunday and Monday after, when I had to go to the funeral home and I had to walk 10 paces and it took me 45 minutes to walk those 10 paces," said Nelba Marquez-Greene, whose 6-year-old daughter, Ana, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Six adults also died in the shooting.
Marquez-Greene thanked Manchin for his work on the background-check measure. "I was so inspired by your courage," she said.
'LONG LINE OF DOMINOS'
David Wheeler, whose 6-year-old son, Benjamin, was slain on December 14, said the families knew the push for change would not be easy.
"We understand very deeply that what happened to us was, in a sense, like a long line of dominos just waiting for the first one to be tipped over," he said, also expressing gratitude to Manchin and Toomey.
Many hurdles remain before any legislation becomes law, including weeks of expected debate in the Senate and amendments that could make the bill unacceptable to senators who now support it. A few Republican senators - and Democrats from Republican-leaning states - have vowed to use procedural measures to prevent the bill from even coming to a vote.
Manchin said he hoped the senators' resistance was due to their ignorance about what was actually in the legislation, and that their minds might change once they saw it.
"I'm going to take the approach that they haven't the facts, they don't know exactly what we have," Manchin said.
He acknowledged that although he is a member of the National Rifle Association, he did not always agree with all of the powerful lobbying group's positions.
"I believe in what we've done, and I'm ready to work for it. I'm not worried about how we're rated."
(Editing by Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney)