By Ben Berkowitz
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Warren Buffett has touched a national nerve.
The 80-year-old "Oracle of Omaha," one of the world's three richest men, has taken to the pages of the New York Times to call for higher taxes -- yes, higher taxes -- for himself and his well-off peers.
"My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It's time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice," he said.
Buffett calling for a higher tax burden for the wealthy is nothing new; last November, in a lengthy sit-down interview with ABC News, he insisted that the wealthy "have it better than we've ever had it" and that they had an obligation to pay substantially more tax.
However, the timing of his latest appeal made people take notice. Washington lawmakers are fighting about how to reduce the nation's budget deficit and curb its massive debt burden, and the question of "added revenue" -- code for higher taxes -- looms larger than any other.
Republicans have fiercely resisted any attempts by President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress to make higher taxes for the wealthy part of any budget plan, insisting instead on all the deficit-curbing measures be made through spending cuts.
Taxation will be a major theme of the 2012 presidential election, and Buffett planted himself squarely in the middle of the debate.
"While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks," he wrote.
Buffett is not alone in agitating for change.
Starbucks Corp Chief Executive Howard Schultz is brewing up support for his call to withhold political contributions to U.S. lawmakers until they strike a "fair, bipartisan" deal on the country's debt, revenue and spending.
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In his Times piece, Buffett felt free to speak for his fellow rich.
"Most wouldn't mind being told to pay more in taxes as well, particularly when so many of their fellow citizens are truly suffering," he said.
While there are plenty of "super-rich" who have been outspoken on tax issues in past, like Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein and Congressman Darrell Issa, only one of the country's notably wealthy people who was contacted by Reuters was immediately willing to respond to Buffett's call.
"George Soros says he agrees and congratulates Warren Buffett," his spokesman said. "The rich are hurting their own long term interests by their opposition to paying more taxes."
From the general taxpaying public, the reaction was almost instantaneous. "Warren Buffett" was one of the single most mentioned topics on Twitter as of Monday afternoon, as was the title of his op-ed piece, "Stop Coddling the Super-Rich." Nearly 55,000 people voted in an MSNBC.com poll on his comments, and 95 percent agreed with him.
President Obama, appearing in Minnesota on a bus tour of the U.S. Midwest, cited Buffett's comments as further proof that Congress needed to find ways to raise tax revenue without taxing the middle class any further.
Speaking of the various tax incentives he and other wealthy taxpayers receive, Buffett said "(these) and other blessings are showered upon us by legislators in Washington who feel compelled to protect us, much as if we were spotted owls or some other endangered species. It's nice to have friends in high places."
Buffett, chairman of the conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, said his federal tax bill last year was $6,938,744, the equivalent of 64 shares of Berkshire Class A stock.
"That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income -- and that's actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent," he said.
(Additional reporting by Santosh Nadgir in Bangalore and Svea Herbst-Bayliss in New York; Editing by David Holmes, Bernard Orr)