WASHINGTON — Karl Rove had never been so agreeable.
The former chief strategist to President Bush was the only witness listed on the agenda for Thursday's meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, and he proved to be uncharacteristically contained.
Rep. Linda Sanchez, chairman of the subcommittee holding the hearing, declared herself "extremely disappointed and deeply concerned" about Rove's behavior.
Rove was silent.
Sanchez spoke of his "role in the alleged politicization of the Justice Department" and his hand in "the unprecedented firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006."
Rove offered no defense.
"If such allegations were true," said Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah, the ranking Republican on the panel, "they would be very serious."
Rove did not dispute this.
There was good reason for the Architect's quiet: He was out of the country. He had no intention of appearing before Congress, and he had sent the panel the equivalent of a doctor's note — from White House counsel Fred Fielding — saying he did not have respond to the congressional subpoena.
So lawmakers decided to pull out one of the most feared weapons in their arsenal: the empty-chair stunt. They printed up a name card for "Mr. Karl Rove" and displayed it on the witness table. They put out a glass of cold water with ice, and pointed the microphone toward an empty wooden armchair.
"This meeting today is a travesty of a mockery of a sham," protested Cannon.
Congress knows the White House can run out the clock on the various investigations into the Bush administration. White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers have already been held in contempt of Congress — but even if Bush's Justice Department decides to prosecute those cases, his administration will be out of office before they are resolved. A contempt citation for Rove, which could come as soon as next week, would face the same sort of delay.
Lawmakers subpoenaed Rove in May in an effort to force him to talk about whether he played a role in prosecutors' decisions to pursue cases against Democrats or in firing federal prosecutors considered disloyal to the Bush administration. Rove has denied the allegations.
A decision on whether to pursue contempt charges now goes to the full Judiciary Committee and ultimately to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Information from Associated Press was used in this report.