WASHINGTON -- Rep. Kevin McCarthy threw the House Republican majority into turmoil Thursday when he abruptly announced he was withdrawing from the race to replace retiring House Speaker John Boehner.
McCarthy (R-Calif.), now the House majority leader, dropped the bombshell announcement at a GOP conference meeting where his party had been expected to approve him despite tea partiers' dissent as their candidate for the House's top post.
"Everyone was in stunned silence," said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) after McCarthy described the traits of a good leader and then, in a hard-to-hear voice, said, "I am not the one."
Then Boehner (R-Ohio) said, "We won't be voting today."
Later Boehner, who announced on Sept. 27 he was quitting Congress at the end of October, said he will stay in the job as speaker until a new leader is chosen. No date was set for a new vote.
In a news conference, McCarthy indicated he was frustrated by the same hard-line conservative bloc whose threat to hold a no-confidence vote led Boehner to quit. "We need a new face," McCarthy said.
He said he didn't want to squeak by with only enough GOP support to give him the 218 votes needed in an election by the entire House. Earlier, the conservative Freedom Caucus said 30 of its members would not vote for him.
"If we are going to be strong, we've got to be 100 percent united," he said of the 247 Republicans in the House.
King said he has never seen such a messy election for speaker, a constitutional position whose occupant is second in the line of succession for the presidency after the vice president.
"This is really a bad commentary on the party," he said. "We have to show we can govern."
The Republicans' unprecedented and uncertain search for a new speaker comes as Congress faces crucial deadlines: a Nov. 5 vote to raise the debt limit funding to keep government open past Dec. 11 and approval for highway funding.
"If Congress waits around for the Republican Family Feud to resolve itself, we'll risk a government shutdown and defaulting on our national debt," said a statement from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The toxicity 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. Jones said later he wasn't pointing at anyone in particular.
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, suggesting the panel was driven by partisan politics.
But King also blamed the Freedom caucus -- he called them "the crazies" after they forced Boehner to step down.
With the two top House leaders stepping aside, Republicans now begin a new search for someone to take on the tough job of leading them.
Some members talk of a "caretaker" speaker who would serve out this session.
Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) are running, but few think they can win.
Popular candidates including Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) already said no to entreaties to run.
King suggested Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). Other names being floated include Reps. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), John Kline (R-Minn.) and Candace Miller (R-Mich.).
Zeldin said, "We'll see in the coming hours and days whether or not a new candidate emerges."