As antiwar activists pour into Washington for late-January protests and Congressional lobbying, they should be asking for a lot more than nonbinding resolutions opposing the “surge” of more troops into Iraq. Nonbinding resolutions have some value, especially if they have bipartisan support, but it will take more than a prod from Capitol Hill to get this White House to change course. With that in mind, the new Congress has seen a flurry of proposals strong enough to constrain the President and perhaps begin the process of stopping the war. They are long shots in a Congress that has let its checking-and-balancing muscles atrophy. But these bills provide a focus for organizing, fodder for amendments and perhaps the impetus for reasserting the role of Congress in deciding how and when we go to war.

Of the proposals written to block the escalation, Senate bill 233, sponsored by Edward Kennedy, has the most traction. Along with a parallel House measure, HR 353, sponsored by Ed Markey, it would prohibit the Administration from spending funds to increase the number of troops in Iraq above the January 9 level without Congressional authorization. Both bills have attracted small but significant numbers of co-sponsors, and Kennedy will use his pull to keep the proposal in play. Indeed, the senior senator from Massachusetts has emerged as the most aggressive challenger of Vice President Cheney and others who contend that Congress lacks the authority to block White House moves in Iraq. In late January Kennedy circulated a letter from twenty-three constitutional scholars who argue that “Congress may limit the scope of the present Iraq War by either of two mechanisms. First, it may directly define limits on the scope of that war, such as by imposing geographic restrictions or a ceiling on the number of troops assigned to that conflict. Second, it may achieve the same objective by enacting appropriations restrictions that limit the use of appropriated funds.”

Of the various bills that go beyond opposing escalation to proposing the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, the heavyweight legislation is House Joint Resolution 18, Jack Murtha’s call for the redeployment of troops “at the earliest practicable date.” With eighty-seven Democratic co-sponsors, including House power-brokers like Ways and Means Committee chair Charles Rangel, Education and Labor Committee chair George Miller and Democratic Caucus chair Jim Clyburn, the bill could be the primary vehicle for the call to bring the troops home. Murtha’s measure is not particularly detailed, however. A more specific proposal by Jerrold Nadler, HR 455, provides that no funds may be used in Iraq except to protect US troops and to arrange for their withdrawal by December 31. Jim McGovern is expected to offer a similar plan to pay only for bringing the troops home. Sam Farr’s HR 413 seeks to achieve the same goal by repealing the 2002 Congressional authorization for the use of force in Iraq. Elements of all these proposals are brought together in the most comprehensive exit-strategy legislation, HR 508, the Bring the Troops Home and Iraq Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2007, sponsored by Progressive Caucus co-chair Lynn Woolsey and sixteen co-sponsors. Russ Feingold and Barbara Boxer are sponsoring a roughly parallel measure in the Senate.

At the same time that Democrats in the House and Senate are trying to end one war, a bipartisan group of House members are attempting to prevent another. Led by Walter Jones, the conservative Republican from North Carolina who broke with the White House to join such progressive Democrats as Maxine Waters in the Out of Iraq Caucus, they are pushing House Joint Resolution 14, which would require the President to receive specific authorization from Congress before initiating any use of military force against Iran. A key co-sponsor of the bill is Murtha, who, as chair of the powerful defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, can raise his concerns.

Jim Fine, legislative secretary on foreign policy issues at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, says that lobbying elected officials to sign on as backers of antiwar bills–even those that may never get a hearing–can strengthen Murtha’s hand as he takes on the Administration. “As more members sign on as co-sponsors of specific pieces of legislation to block the escalation, to support a withdrawal timeline and to require authorization for any action on Iran,” says Fine, “they make it easier for Murtha to tell the Administration: Look, Congress is not going to be blindsided by you anymore.”