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Trump sets auction for Arctic refuge drilling rights before Biden takes office

The Interior Department on Thursday said it will auction oil drilling leases in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in early January.

Why it matters: The procedural step would make it harder for President-elect Joe Biden to thwart drilling in the region, even though any actual development is years away.


The big picture: The refuge is thought to contain huge oil deposits that proponents say can be tapped with manageable disruption. But environmentalists oppose development, arguing it's impossible without harming and jeopardizing the ecosystem that's home to caribou, polar bears and other species.

Where it stands: Drilling advocates finally succeeded in mandating lease sales in late 2017 legislation after a decades-long battle over whether to open the region.

  • But the fight is nowhere near over, and there are administrative and legal levers that Biden — whose platform calls for "permanently protecting" the region — could pull to stymie drilling.
  • And the level of industry interest in highly uncertain. Companies are facing strained budgets, cloudy future demand and prices, activist pressure and other forces.

What's next: The Interior Department is slated to announce winning bids on January 6. "The sale date gives the Trump administration two weeks to formally issue any leases sold at auction before Biden is sworn in as president Jan. 20," Bloomberg reports.

What they're saying: “Oil and gas from the [refuge's] Coastal Plain is an important resource for meeting our nation’s long-term energy demands and will help create jobs and economic opportunities," said Chad Padgett, the Alaska state director for Interior's Bureau of Land Management, in a statement.

The other side: Matt Lee-Ashley of the anti-drilling Center for American Progress said in a statement: "They have made such a mess of the leasing process — suppressing science, cutting corners, ignoring the rights and voices of the Gwich’in people — that this whole boondoggle can and should be tossed in the trash by the courts or the next administration."

House passes George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

The House voted 220-212onWednesday evening to pass a policing bill named for George Floyd, the Black man whose death in Minneapolis last year led to nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

Why it matters: The legislation overhauls qualified immunity for police officers, bans chokeholds at the federal level, prohibits no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and outlaws racial profiling.

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Republicans are demanding a full 600-page reading of Biden’s COVID relief bill

Republicans are demanding a full, 600-page bill reading — and painful, multi-hour "vote-a-rama" — as Democrats forge ahead with their plan to pass President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

Why it matters: The procedural war is aimed at forcing Democrats to defend several parts the GOP considers unnecessary and partisan. While the process won't substantially impact the final version of the mammoth bill, it'll provide plenty of ammunition for future campaign messaging.

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Here’s how a single resignation, retirement or death could flip control of the 50-50 Senate

Note: Bernie Sanders is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Data: Axios Research/ProPublica/NCSL; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Nineteen seats in the U.S. Senate could potentially flip parties if there's an unexpected vacancy, according to Axios' analysis of state vacancy rules, which most often allow the governor to appoint a replacement.

Why it matters: Depending on the senator, a single resignation, retirement or death — by accident or old age — could flip control of the 50-50 Senate, or give Democrats a two-vote cushion.

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White House works with Democrats to ensure Biden quickly fills any federal court vacancies

The White House is quietly working with Senate Democrats to ensure President Biden has a steady stream of nominees for the federal courts, according to people familiar with the matter and an administration official.

Why it matters: Biden wants the federal judiciary to better reflect the country’s demographics, and to try to shield his unfolding legislative agenda from a judiciary currently dominated by Trump appointees.

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Journalists around the world face record persecution

Around the world, journalists are being targeted at record levels by despots, eager to silence the press.

Why it matters: Experts worry that the United States' wavering stance on press freedoms over the past few years may have empowered autocrats looking to gain power and undermine democracy by going after journalists.

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FBI, Homeland Security warn of increasing threat to Capitol

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security predict violent domestic extremists attacks will increase in 2021, according to a report reviewed by Axios.

Driving the news: The joint report says an unidentified group of extremists discussed plans to take control of the Capitol and "remove Democratic lawmakers" on or about March 4. The House canceled its plans for Thursday votes as word of the possible threats spread.

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Pope Francis set to make first papal visit to Iraq amid possible turmoil

Data: Vatican News; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Pope Francis is forging ahead with the first papal trip to Iraq despite new coronavirus outbreaks and fears of instability.

The big picture: The March 5–8 visit is intended to reassure Christians in Iraq who were violently persecuted under the Islamic State. Francis also hopes to further ties with Shiite Muslims, AP notes.

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Biden on states lifting COVID restrictions: "The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking"

States that are relaxing coronavirus restrictions are making "a big mistake," President Biden told pool reporters on Wednesday, adding: "The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking."

Driving the news: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday he will end all coronavirus restrictions via executive order, although some businesses are continuing to ask patrons to wear face masks. Mississippi is lifting its mask mandate for all counties Wednesday, per Gov. Tate Reeves (R).

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