"There's the reigning champion!" shouted Joel Gregory, publisher of Chile Pepper magazine, as Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Tex.) swaggered into the room, elbowing his way through a thicket of TV cameras, carrying the tools of his trade in a plastic bag.
"He's pretty cocky," said one of the challengers, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Sandlin had a right to be cocky. Last year, he earned the title as Chile Pepper's "Zestiest Legislator" by default: None of his colleagues dared to compete with him in a chili pepper-eating contest. So he competed against himself, downing eight fiery hot jalapeno peppers in five minutes.
"He was a chili-eating machine!" Gregory recalled, still awestruck. "He not only consumed eight of them, he washed them down with Tabasco sauce! I can't do that. It would kill me."
Now, Sandlin had arrived in the Longworth Building to defend his title against Issa and four other courageous congressional challengers.
"I thought I'd bring some cocktails," the champ said.
He set his plastic bag down on a table and took out two bottles of milk -- the best beverage for cutting the heat of chili peppers -- plus two bottles of Tabasco, a jar of olives stuffed with anchovies and a wineglass.
"What could be better than milk, hot sauce and olives with anchovies?" he said.
He took a swig of Tabasco, popped an olive into his mouth, then poured the milk into the wineglass and held it up to the light.
"It's got good color," he said, and took a swig.
"He sounds cocky," said Issa, who walked across the room to pick up some milk.
By now, the room was packed with reporters and TV cameras.
"There are four [Cabinet] secretaries from the administration on the Hill today," Issa said, "and the entire press corps is here."
"I'm glad they've got their priorities straight," Sandlin replied.
One by one, the other challengers arrived -- Jim Matheson (D-Utah), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Joe Baca (D-Calif.) and Kay Granger (R-Tex.).
"That's crazy!" Granger said, looking down at the plate of 12 pickled jalapenos set in front of each contestant. "Nobody's gonna eat all those peppers."
"I am," said Sandlin.
"You're a sick person," Granger replied.
Gregory announced that he'd run a lot of pepper-eating contests but he'd never seen anybody eat more than 10 in five minutes.
Baca took off his jacket and tucked a green napkin into his shirt collar. He put another napkin on his shoulder. "I tear up when I eat jalapenos," he explained.
Gregory called the room to order, then explained the rules: The winner would be the person who ate the most peppers in five minutes, as determined by the number of chili stems left on each plate. "Last year, in a competitive frenzy, Congressman Sandlin ate the stems," he said.
"And I'll eat my competitors' stems," Sandlin bragged, "because there won't be too many."
"On your mark," Gregory said. "Get set. Go!"
The pols started gobbling. Issa took an early lead, popping the peppers into his mouth, tilting his head back and swallowing them whole, like goldfish. The TV cameras swarmed around him, getting close-ups. After about a minute, Issa looked like he might gag.
"This is way too long," he said, taking a breath between swallows.
Meanwhile, Sandlin chewed, swallowed, then swigged milk. "Man!" he gasped.
"Two-minute warning," announced timekeeper LaDonna Thorne.
"I need another plate," Baca bellowed.
Stunned, a Chile Pepper staffer rushed Baca another dozen. Then Issa called for more and so did Sandlin, and the amazed staffers started furiously opening more cans.
"I can't believe this!" said Gregory. "These guys are gonna kill themselves!"
"Thirty seconds," the timekeeper said.
Sandlin stuffed peppers into his mouth until his cheeks bulged like Dizzy Gillespie in mid-solo.
"Five, four, three, two, one, time!" announced Thorne.
The crowd cheered. Eshoo wiped her runny nose with a napkin. The judges counted stems. Gregory announced the new congressional champeen: Baca, who'd swallowed 47 peppers. At a time of toxic terrorist scares, Baca had demonstrated true American grit. Take that, Osama!
Sandlin was runner-up with 40, followed by Issa with 35, Matheson with 17, Eshoo with 15, and Granger, 8.
"Yeah! Baca yelled, slamming his fist on the table. "I'm hot right now. I could use some nachos and some pizza." Then, perhaps delirious, he lapsed into Congress-speak: "This is about building relationships," he said. "It's a bipartisan effort."
Meanwhile, Sandlin was crying foul: "They wouldn't bring me enough peppers!" He complained. Then he smiled: "I'll be back next year!"