They'll be back next week to work their tattered will, those victims of the Tuesday Night Massacre, but for now it is as if a plague struck the U.S. Senate.

Household-name Democrats who helped rule the Senate for a quarter of a century were stricken. A dozen were kneecapped at the polls, and their sometimes large appointed staffs were chopped down with them.

Parking lots were half-empty yesterday, hallways vacant, faces dour or just plain absent from familiar chairs of power in the wake of the Republican landslide takeover.

The first example of the grim reality to come -- and no one really needed to be reminded -- came yesterday morning when majority staffers of the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), were advised at a meeting that incoming chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) intends major cutbacks. In other words: start looking for work now. Of approximately 300 committee staffers, Democrats hired about 250.

The GOP, of course, will not be in charge formally until January, but its resurgence will be felt as early as next week when Congress reconvenes to deal with unfinished business.

A good deal of major legislation awaits final action during the lame-duck session starting Wednesday, but realists around the Senate agreed yesterday that prospects for its passage are not so bright.

Part of the problem involves timing and gambit. With the conservative takeover coming, Senate Democrats and Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) may find it is now or never for taking what they can get to preserve some Alaska lands. Democrats may react similarly on other bills pending before House-Senate conferees.

Conversely, the chemical industry may be suprised to find that Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), in line to become environment chairman, now holds an upper hand for getting the tough toxic waste "superfund" bill he wants.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va), on his way out as majority leader, said he expects cooperation from the Republicans and he expects serious work to be done.

Among the items he listed were a second budget resolution, 10 appropriations bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, fair housing and criminal code bills and the Democrats' tax reduction proposal.

A little later, Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), probably on his way in as majority leader, said he didn't think this is the time for the tax-cut bill and that he doesn't expect much action on other controversial measures.

Almost certainly ticketed for oblivion are dozens of presidential nominations awaiting confirmation. The Republicans, indications are, intend to stop them in their tracks and let Ronald Reagan make his own choices.

The list includes 17 federal judgeships -- 13 in the district courts, four at the appellate level; a new director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and a number of the U.S. attorneys and marshals, all lodged in the Judiciary Committee.

President Carter's interim appointments to the board of the new U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corp. are destined to expire, Energy and Natural Resources Committee sources said, as will Carter's nomination of Harvard professor Albert Carnesale to chair the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Of more immediate concern to the outgoing Democratic majority will be the fiscal 1981 appropriations bills, which will offer them one last chance to shake loose money for pet projects at home.

Dams, highways, bridges, research and energy grants, the pilot studies and favored federal programs that are the tangible boodle of the legislative process may live or die in the last thrashings of the Democratic 96th Congress.

Come January, with Republicans in control of the purse strings, they will have their own pet projects and are not expected to be amenable to a Democratic ramrod in November.

Both Byrd and Baker indicated yesterday that if the appropriations measures become bogged in controversy, the only out would be an extension of the resolution that funds all programs at fiscal 1980 levels -- meaning, no special goodies for the outgoing majority.

The power of the goodies machine is not to be underestimated. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.), dean of the Senate and its appropriations chairman, was able by dint of his position to funnel more than $900 million in special funding to help his state after the Mount St. Helens volcano erupted this year.

The loss of such muscle is painful enough, but the air of gloom the enveloped the Democratic-controlled committees yesterday added another, more human dimensions to the changing of the guard.

The committee chairmanships that have allowed such veterans as Magnuson, Kennedy, Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) and others to sire huge extended political families are no longer theirs.

Over the years, through their control of staffs and budgets, they have placed faithful minions in the jobs that determine how a bill moves, how and when a hearing is held, how an issue is joined, whether a president succeeds or fails.

By Senate rules, the minority must have at least a third of any given committee's budget at its disposal. The 40 majority staffers, for example, on the Environment and Public Works Committee will be pared to 20. The 20 GOP staff slots will balloon to 40.

There is another dimension to that, however. If the Republicans are as serious about cutting government costs as much as they profess to be, committee sizes conceivably could be reduced. In that eventuality, there would be still fewer jobs for Republicans and fewer slots for holdover Democrats.

But in a city as politically sensitive as Washington, before the bodies of Tuesday's victims had even cooled, the sizing-up processes and the cementing of liaisons had begun on Capitol Hill.

"Damn," said one Republican committee counsel, "my telephone is ringing for the first time in four years." That was something of an exaggeration, but his telephone was in fact ringing off the hook with calls from old friends and lobbyists.