By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives passed a new package of sanctions against Iran on Wednesday that aim to punish banks, insurance companies and shippers that help Tehran sell its oil.
The legislation, agreed to by senior lawmakers of both parties in Congress, "seeks to tighten the chokehold on the regime beyond anything that has been done before," said Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
It builds on oil trade sanctions signed into law by President Barack Obama in December that have prompted Japan, South Korea, India and others to slash their purchases of Iranian oil.
"There is more we can do, more that we will do if Iran doesn't end its nuclear weapons program verifiably and completely," said Representative Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the foreign affairs panel.
The House voted 421-6 to send the measure to the Senate, where a vote has not yet been scheduled. The vote was expected to be held before lawmakers leave at the end of the week for an extended recess.
The bill was endorsed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobby group, which said the measure when coupled with existing U.S. sanctions "represents the strongest set of sanctions to isolate any country in the world during peacetime."
The bill was opposed by Representatives Ron Paul, a Republican, and Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat, who said on the House floor it would push the United States closer to war with Iran.
If the measure is passed by the House and Senate, Obama would still need to sign it. White House officials said on Tuesday they were reviewing the bill.
Obama announced U.S. sanctions on Tuesday against foreign banks that help Iran sell its oil, specifically citing China's Bank of Kunlun and an Iraqi bank.
The sanctions followed criticism from Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney that the White House is failing to act strongly enough to stop Iran's suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
China's Foreign Ministry said the sanctions announced by Obama would hurt cooperation between China and the United States.
"The U.S. has invoked domestic law to impose sanctions on a Chinese financial institution, and this is a serious violation of international rules that harms Chinese interests," ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement.
The United States gave China, Iran's top customer for oil, a six-month reprieve from sanctions in June, saying it had cut its purchases. That decision sparked criticism in the U.S. Congress. China's imports had fallen early in the year due to a pricing dispute, but have since rebounded.
(Additional reporting by Samson Reiny; Editing by Will Dunham and Stacey Joyce)
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