Russian sanctions bill would restrict Trump's ability to reopen diplomatic compound on the Eastern Shore

Legislation passed by the Senate Thursday to impose new sanctions on Moscow would also require President Donald J. Trump to get consent from Congress before giving a diplomatic compound on Maryland's Eastern Shore back to Russia.

The provision, tucked into a broader sanctions package now headed to the House, comes amid reports that the State Department is seeking to return the 45-acre site in Queen Anne's County and another property in New York that the United States seized last year in retaliation for Russian interference in the presidential election.

At a time when Republicans and Democrats in Congress are deeply divided over almost everything, the Senate approved the measure on a nearly unanimous vote. The underlying legislation would impose sweeping new sanctions on Russia and Iran, and would give Congress authority to block efforts to ease sanctions on Russia.

Democrats framed the 98-2 vote as a rebuke of Trump, who initially rejected U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia tried to influence the presidential election.

"It is outrageous that President Trump hasn't taken any actions against Russia for its interference in our elections, and is instead considering returning diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York that Russia used to spy on us," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat.

The compounds provision and other sections of the legislation were crafted by Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Russia and Iran "need to see more than rhetoric from the United States," Cardin said in a statement.

Two senators at opposite ends of the political spectrum, independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist, and Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, a libertarian, opposed the bill.

The proposed congressional review process is similar to the structure Cardin helped to negotiate in 2015 to give lawmakers authority to weigh in on the controversial Iran nuclear agreement. Cardin was one of a handful of Democrats who opposed that agreement.

Trump administration officials have offered muted reaction to the proposal. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters Thursday that the administration is "committed to existing sanctions against Russia."

"We believe the existing executive branch sanctions regime is the best tool for compelling Russia to fulfill its commitments," she said.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told lawmakers this week he saw "a few problematic areas" with the bill, and was concerned about the impact new sanctions would have on his ability to negotiate with Russian diplomats. Previous administrations — including President Barack Obama's — have also been wary of sanctions directed by Congress.

A State Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about the language on the diplomatic compounds. A spokesman at the Russian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican whose district includes the Russian facility, declined through a spokeswoman to comment.

Despite trepidation from the administration, the legislation has broad support among congressional Republicans. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said that for decades Congress has "slowly and irresponsibly ceded its authorities to the executive branch" on foreign policy.

The measure, the Tennessee Republican said, "marks a significant shift of power back to the American people's representatives."

Obama shuttered the Maryland and New York compounds in December in a bombshell announcement that drew global attention amid lingering questions about Russia's role in the election.

The Eastern Shore property, located on the Corsica River near Centreville, was purchased by the Soviet Union in 1972. Russian officials described it as a recreational site for diplomats and their families. Obama said the property had been used to gather intelligence, though his administration never offered details to back up that claim.

The Trump administration was moving toward granting Russians access to the property again, The Washington Post reported last month. A State Department official told The Sun this month that Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to establish a working group to "discuss bilateral issues of concern." The official declined to say whether the property in Maryland was one of those issues, but did not dispute the Post report.

Under the legislation, Congress would have 30 days to review any effort by the administration to ease sanctions on Russia, including returning the Maryland and New York properties. During the summer, when lawmakers return to their home states for recess, the review period would grow to 60 days.

If Congress failed to act, the administration could proceed.

Discussion of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election has all but consumed official Washington, stymieing Trump's legislative agenda. In addition to congressional investigations, a special counsel appointed by the Department of Justice is probing whether the Trump campaign had any ties to the Russian effort.

Meanwhile, the compound remains vacant, and increasingly overgrown. Queen Anne's County Administrator Gregg A. Todd visited the site this week.

"The gates are locked, the grass is long, there's Christmas decorations still up," he said.

Russian staff were told to leave in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. When the order was made public on Dec. 29, officials who said they were from the State Department and the FBI told people to keep away from the property.

"It looks like they locked the gates and walked away," he said.

The Russian diplomats who worked at the facility may rank among some of the most unusual residents on the Eastern Shore. But Todd, whose office in Centreville is a 10-minute drive away, said they'd been there so long that people thought little about it.

"You'd run in to some of the Russian folks at the Food Lion or you'd run into them at the local bar," he said. "Everyone didn't know them by name, but knew who they were."

The legislation would impose mandatory sanctions on people involved with Iran's ballistic missile program and would apply terrorism sanctions on the country's Revolutionary Guard.

The bill would impose new sanctions on Russians involved in human rights abuses, supplying weapons to Syrian President Bashar Assad and conducting malicious cyber activity on behalf of the government.

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