Reflecting a wave of protectionism sweeping through Congress, the House Rules Committee yesterday cleared for floor consideration a labor-supported bill designed to restrict imports of foreign-made cars. The bill, which has the strong support of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), is likely to come to the floor early next week.

The Rules Committee action on "domestic content" legislation followed an equally sharp backlash against foreign imports in the House early yesterday morning, when a stringent "buy America" amendment was added to the $30 billion highway improvement bill. The amendment purposely omitted the customary waivers and exceptions that allow for the purchase of foreign goods under restricted circumstances.

"It is the most severe restrictions in the nature of a 'buy America' provision I have ever seen," said Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), a 12-year veteran of Congress and a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

U.S. Trade Representative William E. Brock said yesterday that the Reagan Administration opposes the amendment and will try to remove it from the bill when it comes before the Senate.

The Rules Committee's unusually detailed, three-hour debate on "domestic content" legislation--which would require that cars sold in this country have a high percentage of U.S. parts and be assembled by American workers--unleashed a torrent of sentiment against Japanese manufacturers from its supporters and gloomy assessments from its opponents that it could trigger a disastrous trade war.

But its passage was never in doubt. Chairman Sam M. Gibbons (D-Fla.) of the House Ways and Means Committee's trade subcommittee, who opposed the bill, said the skids had been greased from its passage long ago.

"It's a going-away present to old Doug United Auto Workers President Douglas Fraser . He's retiring."

The UAW supplied the primary lobbying muscle for the bill, which was opposed by some farm and industrial groups. It has 222 voting co-sponsors in the House, more than a majority of the members, though some of them indicated they were wavering. House passage is considered certain, but it is unlikely to reach the Senate floor before the lame-duck session ends next week.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), one of the bill's prime supporters, said it is not protectionist but rather is aimed at stopping discrimination against American goods by trading partners such as Japan.

"The Japanese do not trade fairly and do not practice free trade with the U.S. or any other of their trading partners . . . . They are going to destroy our jobs, take our dollars and leave us and our economy colonies of Japan," said Dingell, who represents a Michigan district hard hit by a sharp drop in U.S. auto sales.

"They bow before it and burn incense to it fair trade while the jobs of auto workers are going down the drain," he continued.

The bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Richard L. Ottinger (D-N.Y.), dismissed arguments that Japan would retaliate against any American trade barriers. "It would be in the position of a person in a glass house throwing stones. The Japanese dare not do that," said Ottinger.

"We have been played for Uncle Sucker around the world." he said.

The opposition came largely from Republican members such as John J. Rhodes (Ariz), James T. Broyhill (N.C.), Norman F. Lent (N.Y.), William E. Dannemeyer (Calif.) Barber B. Conable Jr. (N.Y.) and Frenzel.

Gibbons, the leading Democratic opponent, called it "a tremendous step backward" whose worldwide ripples would threaten the international trading system. Similar protectionist trade legislation in the 1930s, he said, "was the direct and proximate cause of World War II" by isolating Japan and Germany from their trading partners. He cited a Congressional Budget Office study concluding that the bill would cost American jobs, not create them.