It was time for the politicians to deal the I-man a little payback.

Those turning the spit last night when radio talk show host Don Imus was roasted at the Capitol Hill Grand Hyatt included a host of prominent politicos and media types who had come under fire on his nationally syndicated show.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), whom Imus once called "a horrid human being," was there, but not offended. He told the crowd he wore the epithet as a "badge of honor." Just goes to show the symbiosis between Imus and the adversaries who make up his guest list.

"In a city full of cranky egomaniacs," Domenici said, the New York-based Imus fits right in. "He says what everyone else is just too darn decent to say."

Alongside Domenici on the podium were Paul Begala, co-host of MSNBC's "Equal Time"; Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.); and emcee Tim Russert, host of "Meet the Press."

The fete was the 11th annual such benefit for spina bifida research. The roast was founded by Al Hunt, Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent, and Judy Woodruff, CNN anchor. Their 18-year-old son, Jeffrey, who has the birth defect, was in attendance last night.

The party should net more than $250,000, Hunt said. More than 750 guests paid between $500 and $10,000 for tickets.

Imus's last high-profile visit to Washington was the 1996 White House Radio & Television Correspondents' dinner, where his jokes embarrassed the president and first lady. Alluding to that disastrous episode, Imus spoofed himself while taking a dig at a former rival: "Asking me to speak in Washington is like asking the Greaseman to emcee an NAACP meeting."

McCain, the best-selling author and presidential candidate, suggested that Imus join him and toss his cowboy hat into the upcoming presidential race. "He's got the endearing shyness of Donald Trump, the cuddly warmth of Pat Buchanan and the obsession with younger women of Warren Beatty," McCain said. He paused a beat. "Even Woody Allen's shocked," he added, referring to Imus's much younger wife, Dierdre.

Said Lieberman: "He's not aging so much as he is decomposing."

All said, though, it could just as easily have been a Pat Buchanan roast. Russert, for example, said that afterward Buchanan would be reading from his book "down the hall in the . . . Eva Braun Room. Black tie is optional, but white hoods are mandatory."

In addition to McCain, Campaign 2000 was represented by Bill Bradley. Also in attendance were Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan (who drew winning raffle tickets; Wall Street reaction to come today); Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala; and Clinton apologist James Carville. And from the media, CNN's Frank Sesno and Greta Van Susteren; public TV's Jim Lehrer; and shamed former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle (who appears frequently on Imus's show), chatting with former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee.

Imus is heard by about 3 million listeners in more than 90 cities, including nine of the 10 largest radio markets. In Washington, his show, on sports-talk WTEM (980 AM), typically gets low ratings. But among those who are listening--as shown last night--are the capital's opinion-makers.

Imus himself was in characteristic grouchy form at a reception before the roast. Asked by a reporter what he thought about the separation of rival radio host Howard Stern and his wife, Imus cracked: "He should have a [expletive] plane crash and you should be on it."