(Bloomberg) -- It’s a tough time to be a US senator.

The Democratic-led Senate, the center of dealmaking for the first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency, suddenly is relegated to the sidelines waiting for the Republican-led House to tackle thorny issues like raising the debt ceiling and overhauling US immigration laws.

Senators in both parties say that Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who needs to hold together his small and fractious House majority, should make the first move on difficult-to-pass legislation. Republicans control just one of the levers of power in Washington — which is enough to thwart lawmaking. 

The Senate is, in part, hobbled by its own rules. It takes 60 votes to pass most legislation, and Democrats hold just a 51-seat majority. 

“It’s hard to see a scenario where the Senate can get 60 votes on something that the House majority could pass,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 GOP leader said. “So I think they’re going to be in the lead role on a lot of things.”

Deal or No Deal

It was McCarthy alone who met Wednesday with Biden at the White House to talk about the looming need for a debt-ceiling hike. The two also sat together the next day at the National Prayer Breakfast at the Capitol.

The Senate, meanwhile, has gotten off to a sluggish start. Now a month into the new Congress, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hasn’t laid out a legislative agenda. And it took weeks to appoint senators to committees so the chamber is only now getting up and running. 

The idleness of recent weeks is a far cry from where the Senate was just months ago. 

Almost all of the major bills that became law under unified Democratic control of Congress in 2021 and 2022 originated out of bipartisan talks in the Senate, including a $550 billion infrastructure bill, gun safety legislation and a bill to boost US semiconductor manufacturing. 

Last year’s climate and health care package that was a cornerstone of Biden’s economic agenda was negotiated between Schumer and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin using a mechanism that allowed it to pass with only Democratic votes. That tool isn’t available this year because Republicans now control the House. 

The Senate also took the lead in the most recent debt-ceiling increases, including the last one in 2021 when Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to a process that allowed the debt limit to be lifted without any Republicans having to vote for it.

This time, Schumer is demanding a debt-ceiling hike with no strings attached and daring McCarthy to pursue his desired spending cuts. McConnell has moved to the sidelines, saying it’s futile for the Senate to move something that the House wouldn’t be willing to take up.

“I think a deal has to be cut obviously between the House majority and the Democratic president in order to have a chance to survive over here,” McConnell said on Tuesday. “So we’re all behind Kevin and wishing him well in the negotiation.”

Senators who usually take part in bipartisan “gangs,” including Manchin and Republican Mitt Romney of Utah, say there is no active effort to seek a deal that would link a debt-ceiling hike with spending cuts, entitlement program changes or other policies.

Border Push

On another hot-button issue — immigration — Independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina in December circulated a plan that would combine border security resources, an extension of pandemic-era entry restrictions and a pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamers who came to the US as children. 

To help revive it this year, Sinema and Tillis traveled with six other senators on a border trip in January that included stops in Yuma, Arizona and El Paso, Texas. Those on the trip included Republicans John Cornyn of Texas, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Democrats Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Mark Kelly of Arizona and Chris Coons of Delaware.

But many of those who went on the trip say the House must go first on a border package before the Senate tries to add broader measures like protections for Dreamers.

“The only path I see is for the House to act first and send a bill over here,” Cornyn said. “Obviously we would need to get to 60, which would require some negotiation and then get them to accept that and send it to the president. I think it’s a long shot, but I think there’s a chance.”

Congress last made major changes to immigration law in 1986, and since then House Republicans have been the biggest impediment to a deal. There is no early sign of consensus this year.

One member of Schumer’s leadership team, Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said with split control of Congress, three must-pass bills that tend to have bipartisan support are the most likely ones to clear this year. Those are the annual defense bill, a five-year farm bill addressing rural economic development and conservation, and a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We will do everything we can to be as productive as we can, but there are very different visions for our country,” Stabenow said.

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