WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary James Mattis on Monday dismissed concerns about a growing pay gap between service members and their civilian counterparts, calling current military salaries "competitive" with private-sector wages.

"It's a balancing act as we try and balance what we need to outfit (troops) with what we needs to bring them home victorious and what we need to pay them to maintain our obligation to these people," he told members of the House Armed Services Committee during an unusual evening hearing.

The comments came in response to criticism of President Donald Trump's proposed military pay raise for fiscal 2018.

Last month, White House officials unveiled plans for a 2.1 percent hike that would match the increase service members received in January. If it becomes law, the raise will represent on the second time since 2010 that troops have received a boost of more than 2 percent.

It translates roughly into $50 more per month for most junior enlisted troops and another $115 for younger officers.

But the proposal is 0.3 percent below the expected rise in private sector wages, the legislative standard for military pay increases. Republicans on the House committee routinely criticized former President Barack Obama's Pentagon for trims to that figure, and personnel subcommittee chairman Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said he worries continuing the practice now will hurt recruiting.

"How do you maintain the all-volunteer force if you won't pay them competitive wages?" he asked Mattis.

The defense secretary said he is comfortable with the current compensation package for troops.

"Our analysis shows we are paying them very competitive wages when you stack them up against high school graduates," he said. "For the enlisted ranks, we probably have a better benefits package than most places. Not all of them. There are some out in Silicon Valley that can probably beat us hands down.

"But when you look across the United States, we’re drawing in very high quality people because we are competitive."

Outside advocates have warned that continued trims to pay raises will eventually hurt those recruiting efforts. They’re pushing lawmakers to up the pay raise to 2.4 percent, a move that will cost the department $200 million next year and $1.4 billion over the next five years.

Military officials have said that money can be reinvested in readiness and modernization efforts. Mattis said the service has "a responsibility to take care of our families … whether it be health care, retirement programs or pay" but also to properly prepare them for their missions.

"All those go into making sure we keep faith with them," he said. "But I also have a responsibility to make sure they can win on the battlefield, that we are providing the best equipment, that we are doing the research and development to keep them on top of their game."

Senate officials have already signaled they may be interested in upping the pay raise, if they can find savings elsewhere.

Meanwhile, neither Senate Republicans or their House counterparts have presented a plan to get Democrats to agree to Trump’s overall defense funding levels, which would top congressional spending caps. Democrats have insisted on equal increases to non-defense programs in past negotiations, something Trump has opposed.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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