California voters could get a chance to register their opinions about the Iraq war under a bill that passed the state Senate Wednesday after a sharply partisan debate about whether the initiative could demoralize troops in the field.
The Vote Us Out of Iraq measure would be an advisory question on the Feb. 5 presidential primary ballot and ask voters if they support an immediate withdrawal of troops.
It was sent to the Assembly on a 23-11 party-line vote and must win approval from that house and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to get on the ballot.
"Once again, we are a nation at war. And once again, the people want peace," the bill's author, Sen. President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, told senators before the vote.
He carried more than 6,000 cards and letters supporting the ballot measure to the governor's office immediately afterward. The correspondence urges the Republican governor to sign the measure.
Schwarzenegger will not take a position on the legislation until it reaches his desk, spokesman Aaron McLear said. He added that the
governor has been consistent in his position on Iraq.
"He supports the war on terror. He supports our troops in battle, and he also supports a timetable for withdrawal," McLear said.
If the measure makes the ballot, California would be the first state to hold such an advisory vote.
Perata spoke in favor of his measure by alluding to the dissent over the Vietnam War that divided the nation nearly 40 years ago.
"People have said this isn't the state's business. We have plenty to do by ourselves, or that somehow by speaking out we are going to disillusion our troops - or worse still, give aid and comfort to terrorists," he said.
But he added, "In extraordinary times, I think you have to take extraordinary measures."
The measure carries no authority other than expressing the will of voters in the nation's most populous state. The timing of the election, however, would force all the presidential candidates flocking to California to take a position on troop withdrawal, Perata said.
Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, said the symbolic vote would be nothing more than "a push poll" that will undermine troops.
"It think it's important that we continue sending a message that we are supporting those who are protecting our nation," he said.
Critics have said Perata has other motives for promoting the anti-war vote. They said the proposed measure is intended to draw more war opponents to the presidential primary. In turn, that could lead to additional voter support for a term-limits initiative sought by Perata and other lawmakers.
That initiative, which is likely to be on the February ballot, would reduce the total number of years California lawmakers could serve in the Legislature from 14 to 12, but allow them to serve all that time in one house. California law now sets the limit at six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.
If voters approve the change, Perata and other lawmakers could seek another term in their current seats.
Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman, R-Tustin, said he believes the term-limits proposal is one reason Perata is seeking the advisory Iraq vote.
"It could bring out more Democrats for a term limit measure, but if the term limit thing is on there by itself, I think it will go down," he said.
Perata denied that his intention is to attract more voters. He said there already will be plenty of Democratic interest in the February primary because voters will have the chance to select a nominee who could become the nation's first female or black president.
Support for the Iraq war already is low in California. An April Field Poll found that 24 percent of the 1,093 registered California voters interviewed supported Bush's handling of the war; 59 percent said the U.S. should set a timetable to withdraw its troops.
Ackerman said voters already expressed their feelings about the war when they voted last November to put Democrats in control of Congress. That's where the debate should remain, he said.
"We should not be spending the time and effort and money that we're spending right now on this debate," Ackerman said.
But Democrats said the number of casualties and questions over the conduct of the war gave Americans the right to express their opinions about it.
"There's nothing symbolic about the deaths that have been occurring needlessly," said Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco.
Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, read the names of troops from their districts who have served in Iraq, some of whom have died there.
"It's time for us to be out of this civil war," Oropeza said. "It's clear today that we don't belong there."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)