The State Department asked Congress on Wednesday to defer action on proposed legislation designed to pressure Sudan to end suffering in its Darfur region by blacklisting companies that support the African country's oil and energy sectors.

"It would send the wrong message to the regime at a time when it is actually being helpful with peace talks" scheduled later in the month in Libya and with the African Union/United Nations peacekeeping force, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Dibble told the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

Legislative measures can try to spur progress, "but we are concerned about the negative impact of an actual new law at this delicate juncture," she said.

Similarly, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi E. Frazer said, "We are at a critical moment and it is important to avoid any action — including legislative measures — that might set back the progress we have made thus far."

Frazer said the Sudanese government had accepted the need to negotiate a peace deal, although it was not clear whether rebel factions would be an obstacle to a peaceful settlement.

Backing the proposed legislation, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who chaired the hearing, remarked, "the State Department appears to be overly sensitive to upsetting the Bashir government." He referred to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. "It seems to me you would like to have an arrow in your quiver," he told Frazer.

More than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million driven out of their homes in four years of violence in Darfur since ethnic African rebels took up arms against militia supported by the Arab-dominated central government.

On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council condemned the "murderous attack" on African Union peacekeepers last weekend in Darfur, reportedly committed by a rebel group.

Congress, meanwhile, adopted legislation Tuesday that would increase penalties on companies that violate prohibitions on sensitive business with Iran, Sudan and other countries accused of serious human right violations. The legislation was sent to President Bush for signing.

Frazer said the State Department appreciated efforts to increase pressure on Khartoum. But she said sanctions already are working.

Outlining the proposed legislation, which is aimed at the African country's oil and energy industries, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said it would require the Bush administration to create a list of companies that support the Sudanese government and prohibit federal government contracts being awarded to companies that support Khartoum.

"We must act, and we must act now," Durbin said.

Also testifying, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said, "It is time again for the United States to show leadership on Darfur."

"We have a responsibility to ensure that genocide does not continue on our watch or on our dime," he said.

And the committee's senior Republican, Sen. Richard C. Shelby if Alabama, "I believe we are going to pass a strong piece of bipartisan legislation."