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Sen. Tom Harkin says hearing witnesses can ignore GOP questions

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The Democratic chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee declared Wednesday that cabinet secretaries do not have to answer questions at hearings if they don’t feel like it, the latest breakdown in collegiality.

In a politically-charged atmosphere during a hearing on increasing the minimum wage, HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin brushed aside ranking Sen. Lamar Alexander's request for a “yes or no” answer from Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

Alexander was asking Perez if he believes that the Congressional Budget Office is qualified to judge the impact of raising the minimum wage. The CBO has said increasing the minimum wage will cost jobs, a finding the GOP seized on.

Perez started by stating his respect for the CBO, but Alexander said he simply wanted a yes or no. “I’m entitled to an answer,” said the Tennessee senator.

Harkin interrupted to slap Alexander for going over the three-minute time limit with a “speech” followed by a question, then said that the “secretary can answer as he sees fit. He does not have to answer —”

Alexander: “Is a senator is not entitled to an answer to a question?”

Harkin said that Perez can “answer as he wants to answer, not as you direct him to answer. You can’t force him to say one thing or another. If he wants to answer that question, then he can answer that question.”

Alexander: “So a senator is not entitled to a yes-or-no answer to a specific question?”

Harkin: “The senator is entitled to ask a question, and the secretary can give the answer as he sees fit.”

Alexander: “That’s not much congressional oversight in my book.”

Harkin: “Well, it’s being respectful of people who want to respond in the way that they feel is best suited to answering the question.”

Alexander: “Well then we might as well not ask questions if we can't get answers.”

At that point, Perez offered to answer “if you would give me an opportunity to do so.” Said Alexander, “I’ll be glad to as long as it ends up with a yes or no.”

The flash between Harkin and Alexander is just the latest example of the civil chaos in the Senate, where Democrats have moved to derail GOP opposition to President Obama's agenda, including raising the minimum wage.

The tussle begins about 3:45 in the above video.

Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at pbedard@washingtonexaminer.com.