FILE - U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter answers reporter's question during a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, March 18, 2013.
FILE - U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter answers reporter's question during a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, March 18, 2013.

WASHINGTON - Former Pentagon official Ashton Carter is likely to be President Barack Obama's nominee to replace Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, according to administration officials, putting him in line to take over a sprawling department that has had an uneasy relationship with the White House.

At Tuesday's White House briefing, spokesman Josh Earnest stopped short of confirming the president's decision, yet praised Carter effusively for serving "very, very ably" at the Pentagon previously and noted he had been easily confirmed by the Senate once before.

"This is an indication that he fulfills some of the criteria that we've discussed in the past," Earnest said. "He is somebody who definitely deserves and has demonstrated strong bipartisan support for his previous service in government."

Carter, a former deputy secretary at the Department of Defense, would have the task of breaking into the tight-knit White House inner circle that Obama has leaned on to run national security policy.

His influence would be tested as the United States wrestles with a growing list of international crises -- from the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to troubled ties with Russia and a still-resilient Taliban enemy in Afghanistan.

And, the Obama administration hopes the new secretary of defense will do what Obama himself has been able to do: find common ground with Congress.

The relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill, already strained, is set to become even more difficult after Republicans won a majority in both chambers in the November elections.

Analysts say the job of the new defense secretary will be no easier than it was for Chuck Hagel, who faced the challenge of fighting an unexpected war against Islamic State with a shrinking budget.

Carter has extensive experience in administering the Pentagon. But he is not a political figure, and therefore does not appear to have any political aspirations that could put him on a collision course with the administration.  

“If you look at it from the White House perspective, the qualifications are:  they want somebody who will follow orders and not make waves," said Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"Seeing what happened to Secretary Hagel, and secretaries Panetta and Gates before him, the White House clearly wants somebody who’s not going to push back too hard, particularly when it comes to war fighting issues,” he said.

Hagel resigned under pressure last week after less than two years at the helm of the Defense Department.  

Whoever replaces him will be Obama's fourth defense secretary.

Hagel had privately expressed frustration with his inability to influence major questions of U.S. security strategy, including the fight against Islamic State. His relationship with Obama's inner circle at the White House was strained.

Carter, 60, served for four years in senior Pentagon jobs and was the No. 2 official at the Pentagon from October 2011 to December 2013, when he stepped down. Previously, he was the Pentagon's chief arms buyer, giving him deep knowledge of defense procurement and weapons policy and control over billions of dollars in spending.

He also served as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy under President Bill Clinton.

The top job may fall to him by default. Another top candidate, former Pentagon official Michele Flournoy, abruptly withdrew from consideration last week, as did Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

Administration sources said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson had been a candidate, but was no longer in the mix. Former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state, had also been seen as contenders.

Carter has bachelor's degrees in physics and medieval history from Yale, a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar, according to the Pentagon website.

VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez contributed to this report. Some information for this report provided by AP.