Judging by the reaction of members of the House and Senate. President Carter's effort last night to describe a "new foundation" for America failed to excite or inspire Congress.

Newly elected Sen. Howell Heflin (D.-Ala.) observed after the State of the Union speech: "I want to see a little more of the bedrock before I get on this foundation." It was a representative comment.

House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D.-Mass.) summed up the feeling of many veteran legislators about State of the Union speeches in general: "They never vary. They're all the same. It's all politics. I've heard it so many times before I know it by heart."

Sen. Gary Hart said it was "unfortunate that he [Carter] didn't take the occasionn to signal the end of an era and the beginning of another."

That new era, Hart said, was "an era of austerity" and, according to the Colorado Democrat, Carter missed an opportunity to explain to the public that times had really changed.

Sen. Bob Dole (R.-Kan.), a presidential hopeful and a studied practitioner of the art of blib one-liners, declared the speech "forgettable," In a formal statement later, Dole said the speech provided "a good deal of rhetoric and precious little substance."

Rep. Abner Mikva (D-III.) observed: "It was not specific. On a scale of 1 to 10 of Jimmy Carter's speeches, however, it was inspiring."

Senate Amjority Whip Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) was more enthusiastic: "It was a ringing affirmation of our institutions," he said, and "on careful reading" will provide important guidance for Congress. Was it inspirational, a reporter asked. "No, I don't think it was," Cranston replied.

Carter got a warm reception in the House chamber -- two standing ovations when he entered -- and applause at many points in his speech. The chamber had fewer empty seats than it did a year ago, when Carter delivered the State of the Union address during a snowstorm.

The talk in the cloakrooms afterword was of a disappointing rhetorical exercise. "Well, he writes his own speeches," one administration official shrugged.

Sen. H. John Heinz III (R-Pa.), the new chairman of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, called it a bad speech. "I don't think the president's message evoked the kind of leadership we need," he said.

Democratic loyalists said it was a good speech that touched on all the important issues.Several praised Carter's lather lengthy defense of the still unfinished new strategic arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union.

But Rep. Bob Carr (D-Mich.), a liberal activist, said "the same president who sent the budget up Monday didn't send this speech up tonight." Carr was speaking of Carter's defense of higher military spending and lower domestic expenditures. "The worst spending habit in the country is in the Pentagon." Carr said.

Many lawmakers said Carter had correctly emphasized the need to control inflation and government spending. "The temper of the Congress is receptive to working toward the minimum possible budget deficit," said Sen. John Warner (R-Va.).

"There is a national interest in controlling federal costs and inflation," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). But he added, "The president didn't address himself to many of the concerns many of us have."

Numerous Republicans promised to go the president one better, by tyrying to cut federal spending below his budget proposals.

The House minority leader, Rep. Johm J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.), called the speech "disappointing." He said there was "more in what it didn't contain than in what in did." Rhodes noted that the address contained "nothing about energy and nothing about Social Security tax relief."

"I don't think anyone can accuse it of being a barn-burner," said Sen. Charles H. Percy (R-III.) of the speech. "It didn't set the house on fire."

Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.) called it "a speech of the times -- dull and forgettable."