Democrats retained overwhelming control of the House Tuesday, but Republicans took their fist step back from the Watergate disaster of 1974.

With a couple of races still undecided and several others likely to require a recount, Republicans appeared to have picked up a dozen seats. That would keep control safely in Democratic hands 276 to 159, but it was the first gain by House Republicans in six years.

The House next year will have 77 new faces. This includes 36 Democrats and 22 Republicans elected to open seats, plus the five Democrats who ousted Republican incumbents and the 14 Republicans who threw out Democrats.

Republicans had pinned their hopes of resurgence on the 58 open seats, but managed a new pickup of only three.

The 19 defeated incumbents compares with the 13 defeated in the 1976 general election.

Next year's House will have at least five new committee chairmen, all because of retirement. The most significant of those changes may be in the Rules Committee, where liberal Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) who is close to the House leadership, will succeed Rep. James J. Delaney (D-N.Y.). Other new chairmen will present little change in thinking, though perhaps some in style.

There is little sign that there will be significant overall ideological changes in the House as a result of Tuesday's elections. The results proved little more than that, absent an overriding national issue, House races reflect local personalities and problems rather than national concerns.

Democrats have controlled the House by 2-to-1 ratios since the 1974 election, when, after Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace, they picked up 49 Republican seats. Democrats picked up another Republican seat two years ago. Now, for the first time in six years, the pendulum has begun to swing back in the Republican direction.

Republicans picked up three Democratic seats in California and Pennsylvania, two each in Texas and New York and one in Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, New Jersey. Ohio, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Democrats picked up two Republican seats in Florida and Michigan, and one each in Connecticut, Maryland, New York Ohio Pennsylvania and Washington.

Republicans had hoped to pick up four or five seats in Texas in conservative districts left open by retiring Democrats. They got two.

In California, none of the eight open seats, changed parties, but Republicans managed to throw out three incumbent Democrats. They did the same in Pennsylvania. Two of the losing Democratic incumbents were victims of ethical problems.

Rep. John McFall (D-Calif.), former House majority whip, went down after being reprimanded by the House for accepting money from South Korean businessman Tongsun Park. Rep. Joshua Eilberg (D-Pa.) lost after being indicted on charges of taking money for helping obtain federal aid for a hospital.

Defeated Republican incumbents included Elford Cederberg of Michigan, senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee, and Garry Brown of Michigan, the second-ranking GOP member on the Banking Committee and the party's leading specialist on housing legislation.

The class of '74 - the 75 Democrats first elected to the House after Watergate - had survived the 1976 election with only two losses. Seven more of the 69 who ran this time were defeated. This still meant that most of the group that won 49 Republican seats have pretty well taken control of their districts.

Among the losers from the Class of '74 were Reps. Martha Keys (D-Kan.) and Helen Meyner (D-N.J.). Their defeats, together with the retirement of three women members and the election of three more, will put the number of women in the House next year at 16.

Newly elected women were state Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.) and Beverly Byron (D-Md.). Snowe won the seat William Cohen gave up to run for the Senate. Ferraro won the seat of retiring Rep. James Delaney (D-N.Y.), despite Republican efforts to reshape it into a Republican district. Bryon replaced her late husband.

Rep. Abner V. Mikva (D-Ill.), a House liberal leader who always has a close race, was leading in his district on the north shore of Chicago. Steven Stockmeyer, director of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committees virtually conceded the race saying Mikva's lead had risen above 1,000 votes and that this margin was rarely reversed by a recount.

The number of blacks in the House remained unchanged at 15, as three departing black members were replaced by blacks.

Sons of famous men had no luck trying to make it to the House. Losers included the son of Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) in Mississippi; the son of George Bush, former House member and Republican national chairman, in Texas; and the son of actor Gregory Peck in California.

In Wyoming, Richard Cheney, White House chief of staff for former president Ford, won the lone House seat, given up by a retiring Democrat.

Both party campaign committees said they were satisfied with Tuesday's results.

"We're pleased," said Stockmeyer, the Republican campaign committee official. "We felt the best we could do was take a modest first step back. That's where we are. Despite our professional judgment that this was about where we'd be, we had a gut feeling there might be a trend going our way that could double the figure. Unfortunately, it wasn't there."

William Sweeney, director of the Democratic congressional campaign committee, called it a "great victory" for Democrats, considering the fact that the majority party has lost an average of 35 House seats in midterm elections during this century.