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Bipartisan retirement bill clears House, moves closer to becoming law

Key Points
  • The Secure Act includes provisions that would make it easier for small businesses to band together to offer 401(k) plans and eliminate the maximum contribution age on traditional individual retirement accounts (it's currently 70½).
  • A provision that would have allowed money from tax-advantaged 529 education savings plans to be used for home-schooling expenses was stripped from the measure earlier this week.
  • Some lawmakers and Washington watchers have referred to this legislative effort as a first step in addressing the lack of retirement savings among the nation's workers.
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House committee passes bill to help Americans save for retirement

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives have passed a bill that aims to improve the nation's retirement savings, moving it a step closer to becoming law.

Called the Secure Act and backed by both Republicans and Democrats, the measure includes a variety of provisions intended to increase the ranks of savers and the amount they put away.

Changes include: making it easier for small businesses to band together to offer 401(k) plans, requiring businesses to let long-term, part-time workers become eligible for retirement benefits and repealing the maximum age for making contributions to traditional individual retirement accounts (right now, that's 70½).

Francis Dean | Getty Images

It also would raise the age when required minimum distributions, or RMDs, from certain retirement accounts must start to age 72, from 70½, along with making changes to allow more annuities to be offered in 401(k) plans.

"We continue to be optimistic that we'll move this bill over the goal line," said Paul Richman, chief government and political affairs officer at the Insured Retirement Institute. "It's likely that before the end of this year, there will be a retirement bill that gets sent to the president's desk."

A provision that would have allowed money from tax-advantaged 529 education savings plans to be used for home-schooling expenses was stripped from the Secure Act during a House Rules Committee vote earlier this week.

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With the Secure Act's passage, it will now head to the Senate, where a similar bill has yet to be voted out of committee. In the upper chamber, it's known as the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act, or RESA, and its provisions largely mirror those in the House bill.

However, it does not include some of the Secure Act proposals, including an increase in the age for RMDs and the requirement that companies provide 401(k) access to part-time workers.

RESA's co-sponsor, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said during a recent Finance Committee hearing — which he chairs — that he looks forward to receiving the Secure Act in the Senate and working out the differences between it and RESA.

Both bills also rely on funding their provisions by changing the rules governing inherited retirement accounts. The House measure would require most nonspouse beneficiaries to withdraw the money within 10 years of the original owner's death, while the Senate bill would require distribution within five years for accounts worth at least $400,000, unless the beneficiary is the spouse.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers and Washington insiders have referred to this legislative effort to address the lack of retirement savings among the nation's workers as a first step. When the Secure Act was introduced, co-sponsor Richard Neal, D-Mass. — who also is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee — said he would introduce another round of retirement legislation later this year.

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It's expected by some congressional watchers that he will include a proposal to require companies of a certain size to offer retirement plans to their workers. Neal has pursued this approach in past sessions and is expected to use his powerful position to put the issue front and center at some point.

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A House Ways and Means Committee spokeswoman told CNBC that Neal hopes to include the provision in a future retirement bill, but that the legislation is in its early stages.

On the Senate side, another retirement bill was also recently added to the mix by Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Called the Retirement Security and Savings Act, its notable provisions include increasing the RMD age to 75 from 70½ over time and allowing companies to make a matching contribution to a worker's retirement account equal to the amount of their student loan payment.

— CNBC's John Schoen contributed to this report.

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