Thousands of kilometres away from the US capital, the latest round of Republican infighting has captured an unusual amount of attention in Canberra.
Nearly three weeks after booting out the speaker of the House of Representatives, the party still can’t decide who it wants to step into one of the most powerful positions in the US government.
And unless it’s sorted out soon, the Australian prime minister could find himself caught up in the chaos.
Anthony Albanese is taking up the US president’s invitation for an official visit, extended after Joe Biden’s last-minute cancellation of his trip to Australia in May.
The four-day program, according to Albanese, is about “building an alliance for the future”.
But the drama on Capitol Hill means his message might not be heard as loudly as he’d have liked.
Will Albanese get to speak before congress?
There had been hopes the prime minister would address a joint session of congress, an opportunity provided to the leaders of South Korea, India and Israel earlier this year.
But with the House of Representatives effectively at a standstill until it elects a new speaker, it’s not clear if – or how – Albanese would be able to do so.
Addresses by foreign leaders come with a certain level of pomp and ceremony, as representatives and senators from each chamber come together to listen to their remarks.
But it would also be a chance for the prime minister to speak directly to the elected members who will have a critical say on the AUKUS agreement, one of the most pressing matters in the relationship between the two countries.
Efforts are being made on both the Australian and US sides to explore other options, and either way, Albanese is still expected to hold a series of meetings with legislators.
But one of the most public backers of AUKUS in congress said he was “heartbroken” by the possibility that a joint session address would not take place.
“I just think that the prime minister of one of America’s great allies should be given the absolute maximum respect and exposure,” Democratic representative Joe Courtney told the ABC.
“Everything is a hyper-competitive environment in Washington, so having that opportunity in a very sort of undiluted platform to talk about [AUKUS] would be extremely useful.”
Legislation needed to progress Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines has stalled, partly due to concerns that the US can’t afford to sell Australia its first few Virginia-class boats unless it starts meeting its own production targets.
Biden last week requested another $US3.4 billion to help accelerate US submarine production, an announcement enthusiastically received by Congressman Courtney.
But Republican senator Roger Wicker, who has refused to back the AUKUS bills unless US capacity is boosted, said that while it was a welcome start, “it cannot stop here”.
“As I have repeatedly said, our shipyards are under-resourced to meet the navy’s urgent submarine requirements as well as meet the prospective demands of the AUKUS agreement,” he said in a statement.
“We must work to signal to both our allies and US industry that we can meet the obligations of the AUKUS agreement without putting our own submarine fleet in jeopardy.”
‘There’s still some hard roads to be crossed’
Australian politicians have previously played down the legislative hurdles in congress, arguing it’s all part of the democratic process.
But concerns around US shipbuilding capacity are not the only issue being grappled with.
Australia’s ambassador in Washington, Kevin Rudd, recently criticised what he called “ridiculous” export controls, which need to be changed to allow the transfer of sensitive US technology.
Speaking ahead of the prime minister’s visit, Rudd insisted he was confident in the level of bipartisan support for AUKUS.
“Not just in terms of the future of nuclear-powered, conventionally-armed submarines, but also our ambition to create a seamless Australia-US defence, science and technology industry,” he told ABC News Breakfast.
“I think this is on track, but there’s still some hard roads to be crossed.”
Charles Edel, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said US officials were also raising questions about how quickly Australia was moving on issues like workforce needs and the build-up of necessary infrastructure in Western Australia.
“So there are a number of factors right now that are kind of screeching AUKUS progress, not to a halt, but to a place where there are a significant number of questions that really need to be addressed both on the American and on the Australian side,” he said.
However, Edel added he was not too concerned about the speed at which the legislation in the US was being dealt with, even with the uncertainty posed by next year’s presidential election.
“This might not be a popular answer, but I’d say too that the enabling legislation, particularly on ship transfer authority, the ships will not be transferred until earliest, early 2030s,” he said.
“It is a useful political sign of commitment. But … in some ways, it’s unclear to me why this needs to be passed critically right now.”
Albanese is dropping in at a busy time
Albanese’s trip to the US is also complicated by the turmoil in the Middle East, amid expectations of an Israeli ground offensive into Gaza and fears the war could spark a broader conflict.
“The Middle East is a core part of American concerns now, but it’s also a core part of Australian concerns,” Rudd said.
“We’re a middle power with global interests.”
The prime minister is still scheduled to meet President Joe Biden at the White House and to attend a formal state dinner in his honour.
The two leaders will discuss an agreement they signed in Japan earlier this year to work more closely together on climate and clean energy, with Albanese suggesting announcements would be made on the next steps.
What’s not clear is whether the prime minister will use the talks to raise his “frustration” over the ongoing incarceration of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whom the US is trying to extradite from the UK.
With Albanese set to visit Beijing next month, and Biden possibly sitting down with President Xi Jinping soon after, expect China to be in focus too — at least behind closed doors.