Dan Rostenkowski, once the all-powerful chairman of the most powerful committee in Congress, returned to Capitol Hill last night for the first time since scandal forced him from office five years ago.

And he pretty much got a hero's welcome.

Dozens of current and former politicians showed up to shower the 71-year-old Rostenkowski with praise. "One of the most remarkable public servants we have known in our lifetime," opined Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). "He hasn't changed at all. He's one of a kind," added Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.). Commerce Secretary Bill Daley simply said: "The chairman's been a good friend for years."

As for that bit of corruption that caused his election defeat in 1994 and ultimately landed Rostenkowski in jail? It wasn't entirely forgotten--"that was disappointing," one former lobbyist said--but most agreed that it was a tiny blemish on an otherwise outstanding track record.

The occasion of Rosty's return to Washington was a reception at the Cannon House Office Building to honor Richard E. Cohen, a National Journal correspondent who's penned a new biography of the infamous tough-talking, steak-eating, martini-gulping, larger-than-life Chicago pol.

The 300-page book, "Rostenkowski: The Pursuit of Power and the End of the Old Politics," chronicles his rise from a lowly Illinois state legislator to a 36-year career in Congress, including 13 years at the helm of the mighty House Ways and Means Committee.

Cohen paints a largely sympathetic portrait of the Polish American Democrat, highlighting his many legislative accomplishments as well as the barrels of pork he brought home to his constituents. Rostenkowski--who cooperated with Cohen but didn't authorize him to write his biography--last night pronounced the book "truthful."

The Goliath known as Rostenkowski was felled by the equivalent of a pebble. He was indicted in 1994 on 17 counts, including alleged misuse of official funds by padding his payroll with do-nothing employees and trading stamps for cash at the House post office. He lost his reelection bid that fall. In 1996, he pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud, paid a $100,000 fine and was sentenced to 17 months in jail, most of which was spent in a minimum-security federal prison in Oxford, Wis.

Cohen was one of the few people permitted to visit him there--Rosty wouldn't even see his wife or four daughters--and during an interview from his cell, the politician was far from repentant. "I'm here for what I admitted tongue in cheek," Rostenkowski told Cohen. "I'm not completely convinced that what I did was wrong."

At last night's party, when asked about the end of his career, Rostenkowski just said: "That's history. It's all over."

His old colleagues were more than happy to speak for him. "It's about time that you got a break sometime from somebody," said Rangel, now the ranking Democrat on Ways and Means.

"He really was a mentor for a lot of the members," said Matsui, who started on Ways and Means under Rostenkowski. The best lesson his old boss taught him? "He always used to tell me never to cut a deal with somebody who had sweaty palms."

"You look at him and the accumulation of his life," explained Daley, whose father, the legendary Chicago mayor, so benefited from Rostenkowski's loyalty. "His friends don't dwell on the past."

Rostenkowski said he's content with life now, and he certainly put on a good show last night. Dressed in a neat navy-blue suit, much slimmer than in his congressional days, Rostenkowski slapped pals on the back, greeting them with a blustery "How ya doin'?" and "Don't you look marvelous." And he wasn't averse to polishing his legacy himself. "We wrote some good legislation, didn't we?" he said to one colleague.

Now a consultant and political commentator on Chicago television, Rostenkowski said he occasionally comes to Washington on business or to see friends, but this was his first trip back to the Capitol.

Still, it was clear that the man who once ruled Washington wasn't entirely comfortable at his homecoming. "He's been a little nervous or anxious about how people in Washington see him," Cohen said.

Rosty doesn't want to return for good. He shook his head no--three times--when someone said: "Don't you think you ought to come back here more?"

"I don't think I'd want to come back to Congress in this climate," he concluded. Buffing that legacy one more time, he added: "We used to legislate in my day. Now there's a lot of hate in the air. Politics in my day was compromise. Today it's war."

CAPTION: Dan Rostenkowski was back among friends at the National Journal's book party for Richard E. Cohen.

CAPTION: Dan Rostenkowski introduces his biographer, Richard E. Cohen, at his book party in the Cannon Caucus Room.