"Hey, Congressman Ehrlich! How ya doing?"

The Capitol Police officers waved and smiled as the Maryland governor and former congressman, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., breezed through security yesterday morning and waded into the crowded hallways of his old stomping grounds, the Longworth House Office Building.

"Feels like I never left," Ehrlich (R) said, as lobbyists, lawmakers and former staffers extended their hands, slapped his back and posed with him for photos. "It's like old home week for me here. Lot of old friends."

Ehrlich's jaunt to Capitol Hill yesterday was to appear before the House Judiciary Committee. He spent an hour testifying and taking questions on a bill that's a federal version of his administration's drug treatment and job training initiative, Project Restart, which is meant to prevent released convicts from returning to prison.

While Ehrlich is fond of saying that Annapolis should avoid becoming home to "Capitol Hill assassin politics," it was Washington that seemed a convivial escape yesterday from the political infighting back home.

Right now in Annapolis, the governor is combating a Democratic-led special committee that's investigating his administration's hiring and firing practices. He's contending with a former aide who now says he was once Ehrlich's "political hit man." Finally, he's heading into an election year with an October poll by Gonzales Research and Marketing that shows his approval rating below 50 percent for the first time since he took office three years ago. And the poll has him losing matchups with both of the Democrats who have launched campaigns to unseat him in 2006.

So he headed for the Hill and the Republican-led Congress, where he served four terms, and where he still maintains a strong network of friends, contacts and political allies.

Accompanied by wife Kendel S. Ehrlich and an entourage of aides, Ehrlich entered the Judiciary Committee room early -- defying predictions by his former top deputy, Edward F. McDonald, who told his new boss that the governor would almost certainly be running late.

McDonald now serves as chief of staff to Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), who was to chair the hearing, and who also has the distinction of being one of Ehrlich's closest friends on the Hill. Theirs is a friendship, Ehrlich said, forged on the tennis court.

"You wouldn't believe it unless you saw it," Ehrlich said of Coble, 74, whose jowly face, bushy gray eyebrows and gravelly voice don't immediately present the image one might equate with grace on the tennis court.

"I mean, I'm a pretty strong tennis player," Ehrlich said. "But he'd come out there, hair disheveled, hung over, a cigar hanging out of his mouth -- I kid you not. And he'd get out there with his slice and his crazy spin and his drop shots. Am I right?"

"It's a real junk game, but it's something," McDonald nodded.

At which point, Coble hammered his gavel and called for the hearing on H.R. 1704, the Second Chance Act of 2005.

"Our old buddy's back with us," Coble chuckled as Ehrlich took his seat. "It's real good to have you back with us, Bobby. Er, governor. Er, your Excellency."

Ehrlich only infrequently referred to his prepared remarks, instead telling the handful of committee members that the $110 million proposal may seem an unlikely one from a Republican governor, but that he has broken with convention. For too long, he said, he supported driving up sentences for criminals without considering what would happen when they were released.

"The definition of a fool is someone who does something over and over and expects a different result," he advised. "When we came in, we were just trying to do something new."

After the hearing Ehrlich received support not only from Republicans, but from several of the committee's most liberal Democrats. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) called it "the most progressive piece of legislation I've witnessed in this Congress in a long time."

Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) even promised to come to Annapolis to help twist the arms of those in the state legislature who have opposed it. Ehrlich delighted in that offer, promising to serve crab cakes and relishing the thought that maybe Delahunt could bring to the State House a little taste of the bipartisan harmony he found on Capitol Hill.