A key congressional committee has approved legislation supporting democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill, where consideration by the House Foreign Affairs Committee was marked by some disagreement over how best to help bring about change in Ethiopia.

After the Ethiopian government released some jailed human rights activists and journalists this past July, U.S. House lawmakers postponed consideration of the legislation by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Sponsored by Africa subcommittee chairman Donald Payne of New Jersey, it would authorize $20 million in each of the next two years to promote human rights, democracy and economic development in Ethiopia.

The measure would restrict U.S. security and other assistance because of Washington's concerns about human rights.

With the exception of funds for Ethiopian participation in peacekeeping and joint counter-terrorism operations, aid would be prohibited until the U.S. president determines that Ethiopia's government is taking a number of steps.

These include credible efforts to release political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, ensuring an independent judiciary and free print and broadcast media, and punishment of security personnel involved in unlawful killings.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee supports the bill.

"We are not only going to talk about human rights but we are going to assist the judiciary in Ethiopia by exchanges between Ethiopian and U.S. jurists, law professors, law schools and law students," said Sheila Jackson Lee.

The legislation would also impose a visa ban on Ethiopian officials involved in lethal force or accused of gross human rights violations.

Republican Congressman Chris Smith:

"I would point out to my colleagues that this legislation attempts to free those political prisoners and bring at least some measure some modicum of democracy, transparency and accountability to the Ethiopian government," said Chris Smith.

However, another Republican, Congressman Don Manzullo, questioned whether proposed expenditures for Ethiopia would have any impact.

"This spends $40 million over the next two years for example, to facilitate joint discussions between court personnel, officials from Ethiopia's Ministry of Justice," said Congressman Manzullo. "[So] you [should] pick up the phone and say hello! Why do you have to spend $40 million to do that?"

There was also a disagreement over some over the question of property confiscated by the Ethiopian government.

Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher proposed an amendment calling for the return of seized property of U.S. citizens of Ethiopian descent:

"There are thousands of such American citizens of Ethiopian descent whose property has been confiscated and whose property is now being used by the oppressors in Ethiopia for their own benefit and their own profit," said Congressman Rohrabacher.

The amendment was rejected in a 25 to 17 vote, as Rohrabacher and other committee Republicans further suggested that Ethiopian government lobbying efforts had succeeded in watering down the bill.

Congressman Payne denied this, and accused congressional opponents of the legislation of trying to block its progress.

"It's just been frustrating time after time that every time we come up with this bill there is some technical thing that just doesn't suit an individual," he said.

Among the range of steps in the bill are assistance to local and national Ethiopian rights groups, a support network for torture victims, a judicial monitoring process, and training of private media outlets, along with expansion of Voice of America broadcasts directed to Ethiopia.

To become law, the legislation would have to be approved by the House and Senate, but it faces opposition from the White House despite a provision giving the president authority to ignore the ban on security assistance in the interests of U.S. national security.