The nuclear freeze movement that is growing in the country swept through Congress yesterday as a bipartisan group of House members staged an unprecedented debate on the nuclear weapons race aimed at prodding the administration into stepping up arms control efforts.

The unusual appearance of both Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. and Republican leader Robert H. Michel to debate nuclear freeze resolutions highlighted the charged political atmosphere as some Democrats, with an eye to this year's elections, sought to paint the Republican administration as hawkish.

"The arms race is getting out of control," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), cosponsor of a resolution to freeze nuclear arms development. "But now we hear dangerous talk from the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon about using nuclear weapons. While the administration professes that it wants to deter nuclear war, it is pursuing policies and developing weapons that could push us into a nuclear war."

Michel, who has sponsored a different resolution endorsing a more flexible, long-term freeze, attacked the Markey proposal, declaring that "any freeze which places us in an inferior position is in itself a direct threat to peace."

Markey's resolution, which calls on the United States and the Soviets to seek an immediate halt to the arms race, is co-sponsored in the House by 160 members, including 22 Republicans. In the Senate, it is sponsored by Sens. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass).

Michel's rival measure has the support of 13 House members and about 50 senators led by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.). Other resolutions have been introduced by a half dozen other members.

As yet, no hearings have been held on any of the proposals, and the debate yesterday was held on "special orders," which allows members to discuss the issues without voting. House members called the debate "historic," and veterans could recall no previous arms control debate in recent times, because the issue, under House rules, is not considered germane to weapons appropriations bills.

O'Neill compared yesterday's debate, which began in mid-afternoon and lasted into the evening and featured more than 30 speakers, to the House's first debate on the Vietnam war on Oct. 14, 1969. "That was the start of the day the war started to wind down," he said.

Speaking in somber tones, he said the United States and the Soviet Union have amassed 50,000 nuclear warheads, while 4,000 are enough to "destroy the world. What's happened to us? What is the cause of this madness? We've got to do something about putting the brakes on."

He added that he hoped the Markey resolution, co-authored by Reps. Jonathan B. Bingham (D-N.Y.) and Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.), "would provide the vehicle to stop this arms race and that, by adopting it, we will be choosing the path of life, not the path of catastrophe and annihilation."

In contrast to the Vietnam debate, however, the House galleries were nearly empty and hardly more than a dozen members listened to the debate at any one time. Outside on the Capitol steps, about 100 demonstrators stood silently, holding candles, in support of the freeze.

On the floor, the dramatic rhetoric compensated for the small audience, as members evoked the victims of Hiroshima and the specter of Armageddon. "We can go on like lemmings, producing instruments of mass destruction until someday they destroy us, or we can begin to pull back from the brink of mass suicide," said Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), an organizer of the debate and a co-sponsor of the Markey resolution.

Echoing the administration's position, however, Michel said, "Any freeze that denies us the right to build the B1 bomber, the MX missile or the Trident submarine is not acceptable . . . . America's possession of nuclear weapons is the only thing that has stood between us and those bent on world dominion."

Ironically, one of the House's most liberal Democrats, Les Aspin of Wisconsin, disagreed with the freeze approach for much the same reasons as the administration does--that it would lock in an imbalance in weapons in several areas and thus eliminate the Soviets' incentive to reduce arms after a freeze. The United States should sign the SALT II arms limitation agreements and negotiate from there, Aspin said.