WASHINGTON — A key US House of Representatives panel on Thursday approved bills urging the sale of new F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan and letting its leaders travel more freely to the United States, steps opposed by Beijing.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the legislation by voice vote.

President Barack Obama's administration on September 21 announced a $5.85 billion upgrade of Taiwan's 146 aging F-16 A/B jets, saying that the move would allow the island to bolster its defenses against a rapidly growing China.

But a number of lawmakers have pushed the administration to sell 66 of the new and more powerful F-16 C/Ds, a longstanding request of leaders on the self-governing island which China claims as part of its territory.

The two bills that cleared the committee urge Obama to provide the more potent jets, which Taiwan had sought in response to China's military ramp-up.

One of the measures calls for adding Taiwan to the list of countries benefiting from a US travel visa waiver program and boosting travel by senior Taiwan officials to the United States and vice versa.

"Why is it that the president of a democratic partner of the United States is not allowed to visit this country, except as part of transit stops to other countries?" said the committee's top Democrat, Representative Howard Berman.

"It's time that all Taiwanese officials are afforded the proper respect and be allowed to visit the United States," he said.

One of the bills also urges the Obama administration to seek a free trade agreement with Taiwan.

The legislation could clear the full House but its fate is unclear in the Senate, where similar efforts to push for the sale of the F-16s has stalled.