Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), just 10 hours into his job as Majority Leader, looked as if he was somewhere between a den mother and a mother hen. He stood proudly at the entrance of a delicious-smelling tent last night, watching the 1980 bumper crop of new Republican senators get a taste of chicken crepes and a strange native custom called the Washington party.

"A good shephard," Baker termed himself, chattering on with Oklahoma's Senator-elect Don Nickles about suitable Washington schools for the kids. (Suitable, per the Majority Leader: St. Albans or Sidwell Friends).

"Somebody told me those schools cost around $5,000," responded Nickles, who's 31 but honestly looks as if he still might get stopped for a hall pass, "and that seems a little prohibitive. You multiply that by four kids. . ."

Nickles: Opposes the EPA, OSHA, HUD, the departments of Energy and Education. Tulsa World claims he "advocates the virtual dismemberment of the national governent." A boyish businessman who took over the management of a Ponca City engine parts company at the age of 24. First worked there at the age of 12, painting for 25 cents an hour. Saved everything he earned. Says "bless your heart" and "nice visitin' with you."

Last night's dinner at the Bakers' Northwest Washington home was not exactly the place for high-level policy decisions about tax indexing and syn-fuels. Like a good many transition parties so far, the event was a get-to-know-the-new-folks affair, long on social pleasantries designed to avoid controversy and offending colleagues you might find on your subcommittee. Plenty of time for that later.

So the Bakers' party could have been a university club dinner welcoming the new members. The floors were hardwood, the walls peach, the shelves full of books, the waiters as much a part of the furniture as the newly re-covered living room couch. This was extremely popular on the conversation topic list, as was: "We're looking for a house on Capitol Hill."

That came from Slade Gorton, the moderate conservative who beat incumbent Warren Magnuson in Washington.

Gorton: Tall, athletic, amiable, good party mixer. Runs 20 miles a week, does 4 1/2 of them in 30 minutes, 58 seconds. Once bicycled from Olympia, Wash., to Boston, Mass., in seven weeks. A former state attorney general in Washington, has a reputation for fighting corrupt business practices. Last night, sat next to Nickles at dinner and laughed a lot. Has two dimples. Says: "One of the secrets of life is that you only have to be good at one thing -- and an amateur at a lot of others."

Last night all of the senators brought their spouses, as usual. What was not usual was one spouse who created something of a stir -- Gene Hawkins, husband of Paula, the new senator from Florida. The only other woman senator is Republican Nancy Kassebaum from Kansas, who isn't married, so Hawkins is clearly as rare as a happy liberal might have been on Nov. 4.

But Hawkins valiantly went to a Senate wives luncheon yesterday,and the Senate wives valiantly decided to call themselves the Senate spouses. And do they expect him to go to the teas, somebody asked Baker's wife, Joy.

"Sure," she said. "If he's willing to pour."

He is. Really.

The other person who might have created something of a stir -- had there been Robert Redford fans present -- was Dan Quayle, the new senator who beat incumbent Birch Bayh in Indiana.

Quayle: Cheerful, energetic, tan from a recent vacation in Arizona. Likes golf. Got strong backing from the National Conservative Political Action Committee. Looks amazingly like Redford, only taller. Actually had a run-in by telegram with the movie star. The details, according to Quayle: Redford sent Quayle a telegram, complaining that he didn't like Quayle's saying in his campaign literature that he looked like Redford. Quayle says it wasn't his literature, it was the Indiana media -- including the Indianapolis Star, owned by Quayle's family. iAfter he won, Quayle sent Redford (a Bayh supporter) an autographed picture of himself.

Among the senators and spouses last night, you could find lots of reporters drinking, eating, but most important, making friends with the new guys. They might just tell reporters something on deadline one of these days because they remember that cozy glass of wine they shared at the Bakers'. Alfonse D'Amato, the new senator from New York, was one of those mixing with folks from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NBC. . .

D'Amato: An unknown outside of Nassau County until he narrowly beat Elizabeth Holtzman in a nasty race. Last night, introduced himself as "I'm Alfonse D'Amato, the poor son of Italian immigrants." Also was heard to say: "Can I buy you a drink?" (He couldn't; the bar was free.) Dark, glasses, a three-piece suit. Laughs and shrugs a lot. Said this to somebody else: "I'm lost and muddling around, but I'm kind of enjoying it."