Congress took the first step last night toward stopping the three-day-old rail strike when the Senate approved by voice vote a resolution to force a settlement on the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to begin action on the provision this morning.

After a full day of hearings, Senate Labor Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), ranking minority member, joined on the Senate floor in a brief pitch for the forced settlement. Fewer than a dozen senators were present.

Both characterized the action as distasteful, but argued, as Kennedy put it, that, "The national interest is overriding, and there is not, I believe, any other alternative."

An array of administration officials, representatives of the railroad industry and unions and other witnesses had presented the legislators with what many felt was a choice of two evils:

One, accepted by the Senate, would inject Congress into the collective-bargaining process and force the engineers union, about 26,000 of whose members are striking, to give up its ultimate weapon, the right to strike. This course, which would set an unwelcome precedent for the labor movement, was urged by the administration.

The other requires a cooling-off period, which witnesses testified probably would not solve the problem and might worsen it by unraveling agreements signed by other rail unions but not yet ratified by their members.

Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), whose state is headquarters for major rail unions, argued that a settlement should not be imposed.

On the House side, James J. Florio (D-N.J.) and Marc L. Marks (R-Pa.), who favor establishing a cooling-off period, were the most vocal opponents of the administration plan. Such a period would be preferable, Florio said, "to having Congress start to write collective-bargaining agreements" and radically change the way this country does business.

Marks said he found it extraordinary that "the administration is saying we want you to break a strike because it's effective." He described Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis, a witness before the committee, as a management lawyer.

Lewis and others contended that a cooling-off period would not resolve the bargaining impasse and would jeopardize other rail union agreements signed and awaiting ratification. This issue has been "mediated to death" for 18 months, Lewis said.

He rejected suggestions by Marks and others that the administration's proposal is another anti-union move by an anti-labor administration.

Lewis testified that a shutdown "threatens to halt the flow of $15 billion worth of commodities and other goods per month," idle about 400,000 railroad workers and, after four weeks, cause the layoffs of almost 1 million non-rail workers. The strike also affects about 140,000 rail commuters and 18,000 Amtrak riders daily.

He said it was possible that the ripple effect could "shut down New York City within two or three weeks," even though its major rail lines are not now involved.

The engineers began walking off their jobs Sunday morning after the 12:01 a.m. strike deadline. President Reagan decided to violate his oft-stated stand against federal intervention Monday after federal mediation collapsed. He asked Congress to intervene.

The administration plan would force the engineers to follow the recommendations of an emergency board set up by the president last summer and agree not to strike for the remaining 21 months of their contract. The strike came after a 60-day cooling-off period imposed by the emergency board.

Twelve other rail unions have signed agreements that include no-strike provisions. Charles Hopkins, representing management negotiators, testified that his side considered such no-strike provisions an "imperative" because of the public trust they carry.

The bargaining impasse was caused by the engineers' desire to maintain their wage advantage over other train crew members and their refusal to yield the right to strike over the issue.

The engineers earn an average of $37,000 a year, compared with $32,000 for conductors and $27,000 for brakemen.

Fred Hardin, president of the United Transportation Union, suggested an option that appealed to some members. He recalled a bargaining crisis in 1964 in which President Johnson called him and other parties to the White House, "locked us in the basement and told us we could eat when we made an agreement. We made an agreement in about five hours."

Hardin said no such pressure had been felt during the current crisis.

The effect of the strike has been widespread. Most freight traffic has been halted, although Conrail continues to run because its engineers are under a different contract. Amtrak passenger trains have been halted in the South and West. Commuter rail traffic in Chicago and San Francisco has been interrupted.

And the strike may force a General Motors Corp. assembly plant in Baltimore to shut down by the weekend, putting about 2,200 people on layoff, officials told the Associated Press. 130:Picture, Sens. Hatch and Kennedy during the day's committee hearing. They later joined on the floor in a pitch for forced settlement. By James K. W. Atherton -- The Washington Post