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Monday, October 26, 1998 Published at 17:48 GMT

What's this all about?

By American affairs specialist Gordon Corera

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The United States holds elections every two years. Once every four years there is a presidential election as well as congressional elections. Mid-term elections take place in-between presidential elections, in the middle of the presidential term.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Unlike the British system where the executive (the government) is part of the legislature (parliament), the US has separate branches of government:

  • The Executive is made up by the president, who is elected every four years, and his cabinet, who are not elected and are normally not members of Congress. (They have to leave Congress to join the cabinet.)

  • The Legislature consists of two chambers - the House of Representatives and the Senate. Senators are the more senior and tend to be less partisan.

    For legislation to be passed it has to be approved by both chambers of Congress and then agreed to by the president.

  • The Judiciary is made up by three levels of courts. The famous Supreme Court has nine judges which decide constitutional issues.

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The entire House of Representatives - the lower House of Congress - comes up for election every two years. It has 435 members representing districts across the United States.

The upper house of Congress, the Senate, has 100 members. There are two Senators to represent every state in the United States. Its members serve for 6 years but their election is staggered, meaning one-third come up for re-election every two years.

In total, 36 governorships, 34 Senate seats and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be up for grabs on November 3.

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Unlike the British system, the executive (the White House) can be run by a different party to that which controls the legislature (Congress). Bill Clinton has been in the White House since 1993 but his Democratic party lost control of Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections.

The current make-up of the House of Representatives is 228 Republicans, 206 Democrats and one Independent. In the Senate the Republicans have 55 to the Democrats 45 seats. This divided government can lead to legislative gridlock as the two sides battle each other for control of legislation.

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The Republicans have only a small majority and at the start of the year Democrats thought they might be able to regain the House of Representatives. But the Monica Lewinsky scandal has made that look almost impossible.

If Republicans do well in the mid-term elections they will take this as a mandate to press on with impeaching Bill Clinton. If they do badly then they may decide to cut their losses and end the inquiry.

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