Capitol Hill holds its breath every time Charles H. Keating Jr. opens his mouth. Countless lawmakers and their aides know that they rubbed shoulders with Keating when he was a high-flying savings and loan owner hustling congressional protection.

Earlier this month Keating brought his redemptive dog-and-pony show to Washington for a speech. A hush fell over the audience when someone asked Keating who in Congress he thought was doing a good job. It's something akin to having the "Mayflower Madam" recommend you as a date. The compliment is spoiled by the revelation of the company you keep.

Keating took the easy way out and praised the "Keating Five," who have already been discovered in Keating's date book: Sens. John Glenn (D-Ohio), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Alan Cranston (D-Calif.).

Privately, numerous colleagues have approached the five lawmakers to say: "There but for the grace of God go I."

Five is a flexible number in the saga of Keating and his Washington contacts. To many of their colleagues, putting Glenn and McCain in the same dock as the other three is like trying parking violators with felons.

The difference boils down to one crucial point. All five met with federal thrift regulators April 9, 1987, to discuss the treatment of Keating's Lincoln Savings & Loan. Glenn and McCain said they were naive in attending the meeting in the first place, but were smart enough to see the handwriting on the wall when the regulators told them Lincoln was a "ticking time bomb." From that point on, they did not lift a finger to help Keating. DeConcini and Cranston tightened the screws on the regulators, trying to get them to give Keating a break. They continued to champion Keating's cause even after the government brought a $1.1 billion bank fraud suit against him. Riegle was instrumental in arranging the April 9, 1987, meeting just a few days after Keating threw a fund-raiser for him.

Our associates Michael Binstein and Tim Warner have learned that several other senators barely escaped the Keating scandal. No one had a closer call than Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio).

Metzenbaum and Cranston were chatting on the Senate floor one day when Cranston happened to mention what a generous guy Keating was, an easy hit for a big campaign contribution. Metzenbaum quickly arranged a meeting with Keating on Jan. 27, 1988, in Metzenbaum's office.

Metzenbaum wanted Keating to help fund a voter registration project much like the one Cranston had used, allegedly to get around federal campaign contribution limits. Keating and his associates had given more than $850,000 to registration drives Cranston was affiliated with, including one run by Cranston's son, Kim.

It must have looked like a sure thing for Metzenbaum, who is from Keating's home state of Ohio. But Metzenbaum apparently is one of the few members of Congress who was too liberal even for Keating to draw into his circle of influential friends. Keating told the senator that if he wanted money, he should ask Cranston for it.