WASHINGTON -- Long Island Republican Reps. Peter King and Lee Zeldin both said they were absolutely stunned Thursday when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy withdrew from the GOP race for House speaker.
McCarthy (R-Calif.), now the House majority leader, dropped the bombshell announcement at a noontime Republican conference meeting where his party was expected to select him for as the candidate for the top post in the House.
"Everyone was in stunned silence," said King (R-Seaford).
At a news conference afterward, McCarthy told reporters that the House Republicans need a "new face," and that he did not want to win by squeaking by with a bare minimum of GOP support giving him the 218 votes needed in an election by the entire House.
"If we're going to be strong, we need to be united," McCarthy told reporters.
King said in his long career in Congress he has never seen such a messy election for speaker, a constitutional position whose occupant is second in line for the presidency, after the vice president.
According to King, McCarthy described the kind of House speaker who could unite the fractious GOP caucus, and then said, "I am not the one."
The room turned quiet.
Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the retiring speaker who was to be replaced by the winner of the planned election, said, "We won't be voting today."
Boehner, whose Sept. 27 announcement that he would step down at the end of this month set off the competition to replace him, postponed the speaker election and said he'll stay in the job until a new leader is chosen.
Neither King nor Zeldin (R-Shirley) said they could predict what will happen now, as the House Republican majority members continue to fight among themselves over the direction of their caucus and struggles to determine who should lead them.
But King and Zeldin offered divergent views of the impact of Thursday's events on their party, which holds 247 of the 435 seats in Congress.
"This is really a bad commentary on the party," King said. "We have to show we can govern."
But Zeldin said, "I continue to strongly believe that the product of this process is going to be a more united, stronger [Republican] conference to accomplish our goals and be responsive to our constituents."
The speaker election has thrown the House Republicans into turmoil as conservatives push hard on their agenda, prompting complaints from King and other moderates. The edginess of the struggle included a letter from Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) warning that no one should run for speaker if they have any skeletons in their closet, to avoid a repeat of a 1998 debacle when Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), quit as speaker after it was revealed he'd had an affair.
King said McCarthy is partly to blame for his predicament, citing his comments that a GOP-created committee probing the Benghazi tragedy had lowered Hillary Clinton's poll numbers -- a suggestion the panel was driven by partisan politics rather than conducting a substantive investigation.
But King also blamed the Freedom caucus, about 40 hard-line conservatives, who he has repeatedly criticized for putting ideology over effective governing and negotiating.
At an early morning Republican conference meeting Thursday, the caucus said about 30 members would support Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) for speaker, King said.
Webster said he would not automatically support the choice of the conference majority for speaker, though Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who was making a last-minute run for the post, said he would.
Some House members' favorites for speaker have already said they don't want the job -- including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
King floated the name of Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a veteran moderate Republican, as a possible choice for speaker.
Zeldin offered no names.
He added that it might be easier for the House Republicans to make a "fresh start," since McCarthy, as Boehner's top lieutenant as House majority leader, would have had a hard time separating himself from the retiring speaker.
Zeldin said, "We'll see in the coming hours and days whether a new candidate emerges."