Karen Hughes isn't the only heartbreaker in the Beltway these days. Just weeks after the presidential counselor departed the Bush administration, another passionate politico announced plans to leave 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Come March, after 16 of the season's 22 episodes, NBC's ''The West Wing'' won't have Rob Lowe to kick around anymore.
While the 38-year-old actor said he's leaving the Emmy-winning political drama because his role has diminished since the show's 1999 debut -- ''There was no longer a place for Sam Seaborn on 'The West Wing,''' he said in a statement -- insiders say Lowe's exit was partly fueled by money. Lowe joined ''Wing'' as one of its highest-paid actors, earning about $70,000 per episode. That figure has held steady while castmate Martin Sheen's recently negotiated salary is more than four times that amount. In addition, costars Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer, and Bradley Whitford are now on par with Lowe, thanks to July 2001 shenanigans in which they threatened a walkout unless they got a pay hike. (Their previous earnings? Roughly $30,000 per episode.) At the time, Lowe also asked producers for a raise and was told to wait an extra year. He did. But according to a source close to the actor, this year ''Rob never even got to the point where he could discuss a raise. They said, 'We're not negotiating.''' (In another Lowe blow, he was missing from the list of nine ''Wing''-ers who received Emmy nods.)
Given the current economic climate, fattening Lowe's wallet could be risky -- particularly since Warner Bros. Television will soon enter discussions with NBC to renew its licensing fee, which expires after the upcoming season. With its large ensemble cast and creator Aaron Sorkin commanding increasingly hefty salaries, ''Wing'' costs an estimated $2.7 million per episode. (That's in line with other 3-year-old dramas like ''Third Watch'' and even cheapie stalwarts like 12-year-old ''Law & Order,'' which boasts a $2.2 million-per-episode price tag.) But Warner -- a division of Entertainment Weekly parent AOL Time Warner -- has yet to turn a profit on the show. That's why one NBC insider says Lowe's request was denied: Warner execs feared a rerun of last summer, with the other ensemble players also stomping back to the bargaining table.
Still, one source close to the situation says Lowe reacted too quickly: ''If he would have been willing to wait, things might have changed. Warner could have figured out how much money they were going to make [on a new licensing deal].''