* Votes come day after Obama announced fresh Iran sanctions
* Measure still needs Obama signature
(Updates with Senate passage)
WASHINGTON, Aug 1 (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress
overwhelmingly passed a new package of sanctions against Iran on
Wednesday that aims to punish banks, insurance companies and
shippers that help Tehran sell its oil.
The legislation, agreed to by senior lawmakers of both
parties, "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
The bill now heads to the White House for President Barack
Obama's signature. It builds on oil trade sanctions signed into
law by Obama in December that have prompted Japan, South Korea,
India and others to slash their purchases of Iranian oil.
The United States, European Union, and other Western nations
are trying to stop Iran's suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
"We are taking another significant step to block the
remaining avenues for the Iranians to fund their illicit
behavior and evade sanctions," said Democratic Senator Tim
Johnson, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.
The Senate passed the sanctions bill unanimously and the
House passed it on a vote of 421-6.
Lawmakers from both parties said they are prepared to take
"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 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."
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 had
failed to act strongly enough.
China's Foreign Ministry said the sanctions announced by
Obama would hurt cooperation between China and the United
"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 Congress. China's
imports had fallen early in the year due to a pricing dispute,
but have since rebounded.
(Additional reporting by Samson Reiny and Donna Smith; Editing
by Stacey Joyce and Jackie Frank)