SENATE Republicans have said a lot about the Washington political cycle just beginning in their selection of men to lead them. They see ahead a period of hard negotiation, especially over economic policy, with the White House and with a House of Representatives nominally led by Democrats but potentially disrupted by boisterous conservative Southern Democrats and Republicans.
They anticipate a steep election challenge in 1986, when keeping control of the Senate they won in 1980 will be made difficult by the simple fact that 2 out of 3 incumbents facing reelection will be Republicans.
They read the election results of 1984 as a public demand for pragmatic, responsible leadership and action on the economy, not for an unthinking endorsement of White House programs or any given ideology. In foreign affairs, a field where the Senate holds independent responsibility, they arranged a chairmanship succession that would balance loyal support for the White House with a steady, intelligent, prudent committee leadership.
But before calling forward the new GOP team members for praise, a word for the outgoing Senate majority leader, Tennessee's Howard Baker: Senator Baker was an extraordinarily impressive leader the past four years. The Senate was the key institution in ensuring passage of Ronald Reagan's budget and tax program in 1981. Historically Senate Republicans have given Presidents of their own party trouble. Baker unified his team and made the Senate hum for a while. Then as the term wore on, he quietly led in attempts to modify administration policies. Mr. Baker is retiring from the Senate to run for the White House in 1988.
Unfortunately for him, as for other outstanding legislators, the general public tends to lose sight of individual achievements in the crowd of ''Congress.'' For most Americans, Washington is seen as the president on the one hand and Congress on the other. But certainly Mr. Baker will enter the field of GOP contenders honestly able to lay claim to a full grasp of national issues and the government machinery.
At the least, with Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas as majority leader and Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming as majority whip, the Senate will have its wittiest leadership duo in memory. In an era when impressions must be made in seconds of film footage, this is not insignificant. Even more important, both Mr. Dole and Mr. Simpson are energetic and imaginative legislators. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Dole reversed the policy of his predecessor and led the Senate's effort to expand the tax base and reduce tax expenditures. He seized the initiative, making his independence more effective by curbing his former caustic style. And Simpson labored mightily to pass a complex and much needed imigration bill, which foundered in the last election's crosscurrents.
Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon, the new Finance Committee chairman, is something of a maverick. Articulate and bright, he too is staunchly independent, particularly on social issues. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the new Foreign Relations Committee chairman, studious and determined, could have a key role in bridging the White House's Defense and State Department rivalry, and in hearings to approve diplomatic and arms negotiations appointments.
All of the above have presidential ambitions (and how many senators do not?). If anything, this should prune their performance of any obstructionist tendencies while encouraging the kind of responsibile independence that will make for maximum Washington performance in the coming session.
Several others of the candidates defeated in the chamber's balloting this week were worthy too. But as it is, the Senate's Republican majority is to be congratulated in its choice of leaders prepared to take a realistic, frank, and responsible look at America's economic, foreign, and domestic policy agenda.