Australian PM tells US House speaker he hopes AUKUS legislation passes this year

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met the new speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday and said he hoped the U.S. Congress would pass legislation related to the AUKUS submarine project this year.

Albanese, who held summit talks with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington on Wednesday, met the new speaker, Mike Johnson, on Capitol Hill a day after Johnson’s election following protracted wrangling among House Republicans.

“We, of course, have important legislation required for AUKUS,” Albanese told Johnson at the start of their meeting. “We are certainly hoping that the Congress can pass that legislation this year.”

AUKUS provides for the sale of U.S. nuclear-powered submarines and the sharing of nuclear-propulsion technology with Australia, as well as joint development of high-tech weaponry. The three-way pact between Australia, the United States and Britain is the biggest defense project in Australian history and a response to China’s growing power in the Indo-Pacific.

Budget wrangling and the lack of a speaker for several weeks until Johnson’s appointment interrupted the U.S. legislative process in Congress, and Australian officials have expressed concern about delays in approving legislation needed to move the AUKUS project forward.

Biden told Albanese on Wednesday both Democrats and Republicans understood the strategic value of AUKUS, and also urged Congress to pass his administration’s legislation to facilitate the project this year.

At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, a senior Pentagon official stressed the need for Congress to approve proposals to authorize the transfer of submarines to Australia, to allow maintenance of U.S. submarines in Australia and Britain, and to authorize Australian funding for U.S. shipyards and training of Australian workers in them.

Mara Karlin, Biden’s acting deputy under secretary of defense for policy, also highlighted the need to pass a fourth proposal to streamline defense trade among the three AUKUS partners. Officials and experts and say this is important for the success of AUKUS given the need to share U.S. technology both in the submarine project and a second AUKUS pillar involving three-way cooperation on high-tech weaponry.

There was no immediate comment from Johnson on his meeting with Albanese, but Democratic congressman Joe Courtney, a co-chair of the Friends of Australia Caucus in Congress, said he was “heartened” that the new speaker had included in his priorities for the current congressional session the National Defense Authorization Act that includes the AUKUS legislation.

“I think we’re still in actually pretty good shape to hit an end-of-December deadline,” Courtney told a news briefing.

Twenty-five U.S. Republican lawmakers urged Biden in July to increase funding for the U.S. submarine fleet, saying that the plan under AUKUS to sell Australia Virginia-class nuclear-power submarines would “unacceptably weaken” the U.S. fleet without a clear plan to replace them.

The three representatives of the U.S. Navy who testified at Wednesday’s hearing urged Congress to move ahead a supplemental budget request from Biden last Friday that earmarks $3.4 billion for further investments in the U.S. submarine industrial base.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Rod Nickel)