The Hon. James M. Jeffords of Vermont stood barefoot in what looked to be white pajamas. The Hon. Gerry Sikorski of Minnesota stood opposite, equally barefoot, equally attired, not long after noon yesterday in the foyer of the Rayburn House Office Building.

The Republican senator eyed the Democratic congressman. Sikorski stared back. Think of the divisive issues: abortion, deficit, taxes, flag-burning, military spending, where to eat. They yelled something sharp and primeval at each other, and it began: punches, spin moves, kicks, chops, slices, two representatives of the people coming to blows.

Suddenly, a Democratic left thudded on a Republican cheekbone.

"Oh. Sorry."

When a politician apologizes, the dispute can be no congressional matter. In this case, it was just two members in the throes of (gently) qualifying for their black belts in taekwondo, further proof that the capital of the United States is waist-deep in summer.

"He was a liberal Republican, so I eased off on him a little bit," Sikorski said afterward.

For two hours yesterday, before an audience of several dozen colleagues and staff, Jeffords, Sikorski and two other members of Congress worked up a healthy sweat on the foyer's lush red carpet, trying to reach new martial heights under the tutelage of Jhoon Rhee, 58, their Korean-born instructor from Arlington.

Sikorski rose from brown belt to black, the last stop on the belt way. So did Jeffords. So did Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.). And Rep. Robert A. Borski Jr. (D-Pa.) upgraded from blue to red.

Truth be told, there was not much doubt they would pass their qualifying tests, considering their diplomas were framed and ready before anybody had slipped out of civilian dress and into his dobok, that pajama-looking uniform.

Still, they were rigorous about this thing, which at times also involved demonstrations by other taekwondo practitioners.

Looking like four Bruce Lees performing "The Nutcracker," the congressmen of taekwondo parried and thrust and kicked in unison to Kate Smith booming "God Bless America." Then, each carried a little Korean and American flag as they moved to the national anthems of the countries.

Donning red padded helmets, gloves and shin guards that gave them the aura of a hockey team, they squared off for some mutual pummeling, then moved on to the obligatory board-breaking part, always a crowd pleaser.

This was no first. Four years ago, four other congressmen went through a similar public test of skills, and Rhee said he has a dozen or so in training, counting yesterday's four. All told, 120 members of Congress have received instruction in the past couple of decades, Rhee said.

He does it for free. For one thing, Rhee said, he wants to pay back America for all that it is and for coming to South Korea's aid when North Korea invaded in 1950. For another, he said, he wants Congress to help him restore discipline and respect in schools by, among other things, instituting an annual national teacher appreciation day. In other words, he lobbies a bit.

The congressmen do it, they said, to be better members.

"Boy, nobody takes me on on the floor because they know what could happen to them," Jeffords said with a laugh, adding: "It gives you an edge in this way. If you stay in physical shape and you're in there {at} 10 or 11 o'clock at night, you've got an edge over those who don't keep in shape."

"You put your mind on cruise control and it relaxes, as well as it's a healthy thing to do," Sikorski said of the twice-weekly instruction in the House gym. "I'm on the health and environment subcommitee, and I feel some kind of moral obligation to do the workout."

At that moment, Sikorski had to leave to shepherd a bill. "I think I'll wear my black belt to the floor today," Sikorski said.