The Carter administration yesterday said it would leave the problem of trying to restrict Japanese auto imports to the Reagan administration and warned that even if Congress gave Carter the power to do something he would not.

U.S. Trade Representative Reubin Askew told a House subcommittee considering legislation to help Detroit that "it would be acceptable to the administration if Congress wished to clarify" what authority the president has to limit imports. But he added that "if such clarification is forthcoming, it would be up to the incoming administration to determine whether this presidential authority should be used."

"I think the people have spoken" with their votes, Askew told the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee. Carter has not shirked his responsibility as president, Askew said, he only wants to leave the decision with the peoples' choice.

Administration sources said there was deep division within the government up to the last minute over how it should deal with a request from the Ford Motor Co. and United Auto Workers union for relief from imports, which the company and union blame for their recent low profits and high unemployment. Askew, presidential adviser Stuart Eizenstat, the secretaries of commerce and transportation and the Justice Department fought bitterly over whether Carter should flatly say the industry should get import relief and what effect that would have legally, ecnonomically and with America's trading partners.

President-elect Ronald Reagan had no comment on the Carter decision, a Reagan spokesman said last night.

The Carter administration in the past has maintained that import relief would be inflationary and violate the nation's basic belief in free trade, though it sought to court the auto industry during the campaign. Carter insisted he did not have the authority to negotiate or implement an agreement with the Japanese to limit sales of their cars here because it could violate antitrust laws.

Carter had said he had to wait for the International Trade Commission to find that imports had been the major cause of Detroit's problems before he could give any relief. He said during the campaign that soon after the ITC's decision he would act.

However, the ITC said on Nov. 10 that Detroit's problems were not caused by imports from Japan but by the recession, which diminished consumers' disposable income, and by high-priced gasoline, which made consumers turn away from large cars, traditionally Detroit's big profit-makers.

The UAW and Ford then decided to take their case to Congress to authorize Carter to help them.

Several subcommittee members said they were inclined to approve legislation authorizing negotiations with the Japanese, but they wanted assurances from automakers that they would invest the money in plant expansion here and not in other countries and from the union that it would not take advantage of the situation by requesting high wages.

"How can people making $5 to $6 an hour buy cars made by people earning $18 an hour?" Rep. Edgar L. Jenkins (D-Ga.) repeatedly asked UAW President Douglas Fraser.

Before Askew's testimony Fraser gave a bleak picture of the automotive industry, saying he did not expect employment to pick up substantially the next two to three years. At least four committee members seemed sympathetic and said they would support the import legislation.

Outgoing Rep. Charles A. Vanik (D-Ohio), who called the hearings, told reporters he would poll subcommittee members and determine by this afternoon the disposition of the import legislation. Al Ullman (D-Ore.), outgoing chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, indicated the legislation could pass his committee. "I want to give the companies time to accomplish" their $80 billion program to retool and modernize to build new fleets of small cars to compete with Japan, he said. "I think Congress would be sympathetic, but they want the assurance" that import relief "wouldn't slow up your effort to become competitive."